Wicca is a relatively modern attempt (approximately 50 years old) at reviving and reconstructing the old pre-Christian religions of Europe. In a mythopoetic sense it is many centuries old. However, the Witch of 200 years ago would not recognize what is called "witchcraft" today. Modern Wicca may have some of its roots in some of the local folk-magic and "family witchcraft" of mid 20th Century England. It does have traceable roots in the Golden Dawn magical society of late 19th century England, some of Aleister Crowley's magickal work and some Ceremonial Magic dating back to Elizabethan times. For a modern history of English Wicca, the reader can most profitably consult the works of Janet and Stuart Farrar and Doreen Valiente.
Up until recently, the earliest known remnants of human society that give us any clues to the spiritual dimension of prehistoric man are those belonging to the Gravettian-Aurignacian cultures of 2500-1500 BCE This is called the Upper Paleolithic Period. Though most of the sites so far discovered have been found in Europe, a very important site in Anatolia (modern Turkey) has also been found and is the (so far) the first or oldest City of Catal Huyuk (pronounced chatal Hoo-Yook),they form a conjectural foundation for the religion of the goddess as it emerged in the later Neolithic Age of the Near East. There have been numerous studies of these Paleolithic cultures, including extensive explorations of the sites occupied by these peoples, including the apparent rites connected with the disposal of their dead.
The earliest remains of ancient civilization indicating some form of Goddess worship were in the caves in Lascaux, France. Here, the first and earliest non-anthropomorphic divine figures were symbolized by the horse for female Divinity and the Bison as the male divine influence. This portion of the cave was painted in approximately 17,000 BCE and sealed approximately 10,000 BCE The anthropomorphic Goddess figures appear sometime approximately 7,000 BCE The earliest remains in Catal Huyuk have been reliably carbon dated to 6,500 BC and show some interesting parallels in that the horse was replaced with an anthropomorphic goddess and the Bison (an ice age animal) has been replaced with the aurochs bull, ancestor of modern cattle. The anthropomorphic Goddess is an Earth Mother and the nearby volcanoes (then active) were considered her breasts.1
One major conjecture has been that the concept of the creator of all human life may have been formulated by the clan's image of women. The reasoning behind this conjecture lies in the observations in this century of the few remaining Paleolithic type cultures. These Paleolithic cultures tend to be woman centered since it is from the women that babies come and the women are absolutely essential for the continuation of the tribe or clan. Current information also indicates that it is also probable that the mother was regarded as the sole (or at least primary) parent of children in this culture, and that there was a definite pattern of ancestor worship. It is also very probable that ancestry was matrilineal.
The most tangible evidence that these very ancient cultures and their predecessors worshipped a goddess is the numerous sculptures of women found throughout most of Europe and the Near east. Some of these sculptures date as far back as 25,000 BCE! Small female figurines, made of stone, bone and clay (most seemingly pregnant) have been found throughout the widespread Gravettian-Aurignacian sites as far apart as Spain, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia spanning an apparent period of at least 10,000 years. Erich Neumnann, in "The Great Mother" (p.95) says- "Of the Stone Age sculptures known to us, there are fifty-five female figures and only five male figures. The male figures, of youths, are atypical and poorly executed, hence it is certain that they had no significance for the cult. This fits in with the secondary character of the male godhead, who appeared only later in the history of religions and derived his divine rank from his mother, the Goddess."
Johannes Maringer, in his book the "Gods of Prehistoric Man" says- "it appears highly probable then that the female figurines were idols of a Great Mother cult, practiced by the non-nomadic Aurignacian mammoth hunters who inhabited the immense Eurasian territories that extended from Southern France to Lake Baikal in Siberia." It was from the Lake Baikal area in Siberia that tribes are believed to have migrated across the Bering land bridge to North America about this time period, and formed the nucleus of what was to become the race of North American Indians. In some primitive societies known to history, the male role in procreation was not known. Intercourse and pregnancy both begin with puberty, and there was no evident reason to regard one as the cause of the other. Women were believed to conceive from the light of the moon or from ancestral spirits.
Neolithic cultures have left a bit more evidence for study and the images are a bit clearer and less speculative. One good instance of this is the stone age painting of a priestess officiating over a group of worshippers along with a male wearing a horned headdress. An interesting point here is that the priestess pictured is wearing a garter and wielding a ceremonial dagger, much like the ones used in modern witchcraft. Of course much has been made of this, including a lot of unfounded speculations on the "ancient connections" of modern witchcraft, but that is a topic beyond the scope of the present work. The beginnings of Roman religion are sure to have been based on the Etruscan culture. Ancestor worship was the earliest form of religion in Rome. Another interesting fact relating to ancient Matrilineal forms influencing present society is reflected in the Jewish custom current today that membership comes from the mother's side of a marriage.
The above mentioned goddess images, some as old as 7000 BC, offer silent testimony to the most ancient worship of a great goddess in the land that is most often remembered today as the homeland of Judaism and Christianity. In exploring the influence and importance of the worship of the Goddess in Canaan in biblical times, we find that as Ashtoreth, Asherah (perhaps the origin of the tribe of Asher?), Astarte, Attoret, Anath, or simply as Elat or Baalat, she was the principal deity of such great Canaanite cities as Tyre, Sidon, Ascalon, Beth Anath, Aphaca, Byblos, and Ashtoreth Karnaim.
In Egypt, the Hebrews had known the worship of the Goddess as Isis or Hathor. For four generations they had been living in a land where women held a very high status and the matrilineal descent system continued to function at most periods.
Judging from the number of Hebrews who emerged from Egypt in the Exodus, as compared with the family of the twelve sons who supposedly entered it four generations earlier, it seems likely that a great number of those Hebrews known as Israelites may actually have been Egyptians, Canaanites, Semitic nomads and other Goddess-worshipping peoples who had joined together in Egypt. Archaeological records and artifacts reveal that the religion of the Goddess still flourished in many of the cities of Canaan long after the Hebrews invaded.
What are some of the modern day applications of this long history of Goddess worship? For an answer to this, let's look at an encapsulation of the "herstory" of the legend of the Universal Goddess as taught to the new entrants to the Faerie Tradition in 20th Century America.
According to the legends of the Faerie, Witchcraft and magick began more than 35 thousand years ago, when the last ice age in Europe began and small bands of nomadic hunters followed the free-running reindeer and bison herds. They were armed with but primitive weapons ( Stone Age, remember?), and had to lure or chase the animals over a cliff or into a pit to kill and eat them. As Starhawk says,"...some among the clans were gifted, could "call" the herds to a cliff side or a pit, where a few beasts, in willing sacrifice, would let themselves be trapped."
As the last ice age retreated the tribes of nomadic hunters worshipped the Goddess of the Wild Things and Fertility and the God of the Hunt. Semi-permanent homes were set up in caves carved out by the glaciers. Shamans and Shamanka conducted rites within hard to reach portions of the caves, which were painted with scenes of the hunt, magical symbols and the tribes totem animals.
The transition from Hunter-Gatherers to agriculturists was reflected in the change of the "Lady of the Wild Things and Fertility" to the "Barley Mother" and the "God of the Hunt" to the "Lord of the Grain". The importance of the phases of the moon and the sun was reflected in the rituals that evolved around sowing, reaping, and letting out to pasture.
Villages grew into towns and cities and society changed from tribal to communal to urban. Paintings on the plastered walls of shrines depicted the Goddess giving birth to the Divine Child - Her son, consort and seed. The Divine Child was expected to take a special interest in the city dwellers, just as His Mother and Father had taken an interest in the people who lived away from the cities. Mathematics, astronomy, poetry, music, medicine, and the understanding of the workings of the human mind, developed side by side with the lore of the deeper mysteries.
Far to the east, nomadic tribes devoted themselves to the arts of war and conquest. Wave after wave of invasion swept over Europe from the Bronze Age onward. Warrior gods drove the Goddess' people out from the fertile lowlands and the fine temples, into the hills and high mountains, where they became known as the Sidhe, the Picts or Pixies, and the Fair Folk or the Fairies. The mythological cycle of Goddess and Consort, Mother and Child, which had held sway for 30,000 years was changed to conform to the values of the conquering patriarchies.
In Canaan, Yahweh fought a bloody battle to ensure that his followers had "no other gods before me." The Goddess was given a masculine name and assigned the role of a false god. Along with the suppression of the Goddess, women lost most of the rights they had previously enjoyed.
In Greece, the Goddess in Her many aspects, was "married" to the new gods resulting in the Olympic Pantheon. The Titans, who the Olympians displaced were more in touch with the primal aspects of the Goddess.
The victorious Celts in Gaul and the British Isles, adopted many features of the Old Religion and incorporated them into the Druidic Mysteries. The Faerie, breeding cattle in the stony hills and living in turf-covered round huts preserved the Craft. They celebrated the eight feasts of the Wheel of the Year with wild processions on horseback, singing and chanting along the way and lighting ritual bonfires on the mountain tops. It was said that the invaders often joined in the revels and many rural families, along with some royalty, could claim to have Faerie blood. The College of the Druids and the Poetic Colleges of Ireland and Wales were said to have preserved many of the old mysteries. ***
In the late 1400's the Catholic Church attempted to obliterate its competitors, and the followers of the Old Religion were forced to "go underground." They broke up into small groups called Covens and, isolated from each other, formed what would later be known as the Family Traditions. Inevitably, parts of the Craft were forgotten or lost and what survives today is fragmentary.
After nearly five centuries of persecution and terror, came the Age of Disbelief. Memory of the True Craft had faded as non-members who could remember how they once had met openly died and those who came after never knew of them. All that was left were the hideous stereotypes which were ludicrous, laughable or just plain tragic. With the repeal of the last Witchcraft Act in England in 1954, the Craft started to re-emerge as an alternative to a world that viewed the planet as a resource to be exploited.
Janet and Stewart Farrar, in the introduction to The Witches Goddess say of the modern re-emergence of the Goddess " ..may well prove to be one of the most significant spiritual, psychic and psychological developments of our lifetime". They have since done a wonderful job of presenting an overview of the ascendancy and history of the expression of the masculine principle of deity as e pressed by Male God-forms and Gods with their book The Witches' God. What do the Farrars consider this "masculine principle" to be? "...it represents the linear-logical, analyzing, fertilizing aspect, with its emphasis on Ego-consciousness and individuality, while the feminine principle represents the cyclical-intuitive, synthesizing, formative, nourishing aspect, with its emphasis on the riches of the unconscious, both Personal and Collective, and on relatedness."
As mankind started to develop his cultures in directions that were more male dependent in the nature of the cultures, the emphasis in religion shifted to become more male god than female goddess oriented. As this happened, the Goddess(es) lost ground to the God(s). At first, the female aspect merely became secondary to the male, but eventually the male took over and dominated to the total exclusion of the female, particularly in western society as we know it today. "The first major god-form to claim a monopoly of divinity was the Hebrew Yahweh, from which in due course sprang the Christian and Moslem forms." "Dr. Raphael Patai, in his books Man and Temple and The Hebrew Goddess shows that the Goddess Asherah was worshipped alongside Yahweh as his wife and sister in the Temple at Jerusalem for 240 of the 360 years the temple complex existed, and her image was publicly displayed there." There is also evidence that the Jewish community at elephantine in Egypt acknowledged two goddess-wives of Yahweh, and also there still remains in Ezekiel (xxiii)a metaphorical reference to a pair of wives, where Yahweh condemns the "whoredom" of two sisters who "became mine and bore me sons and daughters".