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Get to Know: Wicca

Posted by jase on July 18, 2009

Wicca (pronounced [ˈwɪkə]) is a neopagan, nature-based religion. It was popularised in 1954 by Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant, who at the time called it a “Witch cult” and “Witchcraft”, and its adherents “the Wica”.

Wiccans, as followers of Wicca are now commonly known, typically worship a God (traditionally the Horned God) and a Goddess (traditionally the Triple Goddess), who are sometimes represented as being a part of a greater pantheistic Godhead, and as manifesting themselves as various polytheistic deities. Other characteristics of Wicca include the ritual use of magic, a basic code of morality, and the celebration of eight seasonal-based festivals.

There is dispute as to what actually constitutes Wicca. Initially, this spelling may have referred to the lineage of one of Gardner’s rivals, Charles Cardell, although from the 1960s it referred only to lineages stemming from Gardner and operating as initiatory Mystery Priesthoods (such as Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca). These are now collectively known in North America as British Traditional Wicca. A third usage, which has grown in popularity in recent years considers Wicca to include other forms of Goddess-oriented neopagan witchcraft that are similar to but independent of that lineage, including Dianic Wicca and the 1734 Tradition; these are sometimes collectively termed Eclectic Wicca.

For most Wiccans, Wicca is a duotheistic religion worshipping both a God and a Goddess, who are seen as complementary polarities (akin to the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang), and “embodiments of a life-force manifest in nature.” The God is sometimes symbolised as the Sun, and the Goddess as the Moon.

Traditionally the God is viewed as a Horned God, associated with nature, wilderness, sexuality and hunting. The Horned God is given various names according to the tradition, and these include Cernunnos, Pan, Atho and Karnayna. At other times the God is viewed as the Green Man, a traditional figure in art and architecture of Europe, or as a Sun God (particularly at the festival of Litha, or the summer solstice). Another depiction of the God is as the Oak King and the Holly King, one who rules over Spring and Summer, the other who rules over Autumn and Winter.

The Goddess is usually portayed as a Triple Goddess with aspects of ‘Maiden’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Crone’, though she is also commonly depicted as a Moon Goddess. Some Wiccans see the Goddess as pre-eminent, since she contains and conceives all; the God is the spark of life and inspiration within her, simultaneously her lover and her child. This is reflected in the traditional structure of the coven. In some traditions, notably feminist Dianic Wicca, the Goddess is seen as complete unto herself, and the God is not worshipped at all, though this has been criticised by members of other traditions. Secondarily, the God is also sometimes viewed in a triple form (possibly in a reflective religious homage to the triple Goddess, referencing their complementary polarity) that being the aspects of ‘Son’, ‘Father’ and ‘Sage’.

According to Gerald Gardner, the gods of Wicca are prehistoric gods of the British Isles: a Horned God and a Great Mother goddess. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on this claim, however various different horned gods and mother goddesses were worshipped in the British Isles in the ancient and early mediaeval period.

Beliefs in the afterlife vary among Wiccans, although reincarnation is a traditional Wiccan teaching. Raymond Buckland said that a soul reincarnates into the same species over many lives in order to learn and advance one’s soul, but this belief is not universal. A popular saying amongst Wiccans is “once a witch, always a witch”, indicating that Wiccans are the reincarnation of earlier witches.

Typically, Wiccans who believe in reincarnation believe that prior to this, the soul rests for a while in the Otherworld or Summerland, known in Gardner’s writings as the “ecstasy of the Goddess”. Many Wiccans believe in the ability to contact the spirits of the dead who reside in the Otherworld through spirit mediums and ouija boards, particularly on the sabbat of Samhain, though some disagree with this practice, such as High Priest Alex Sanders, who stated “they are dead; leave them in peace”. This belief was likely influenced by Spiritualism, which was very popular at the time, and which Gardner had had experience with.

Despite some belief in it, Wicca does not place an emphasis on the afterlife, focusing instead on the current one; as the historian Ronald Hutton remarked, “the instinctual position of most pagan witches, therefore, seems to be that if one makes the most of the present life, in all respects, then the next life is more or less certainly going to benefit from the process, and so one may as well concentrate on the present”.

Magick

Wiccans believe in magic that can be manipulated through the form of witchcraft or sorcery. Some spell it as “magick”, a term coined by occultist Aleister Crowley, though this spelling is more commonly associated with the religion of Thelema than Wicca. Many spell it this way to distinguish it from “false magic” such as a magician’s tricks.  Wiccans cast spells during ritual practices inside a sacred circle, in an attempt to bring about real changes (which are further explained in the “Ritual practices” section). Common Wiccan spells include those used for healing, for love, for fertility, or to banish negative influences.

Many Wiccans agree with the definition of magic offered by ceremonial magicians. Aleister Crowley, for instance, declared that magic was “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will”, and MacGregor Mathers stated that it was “the science of the control of the secret forces of nature”. Wiccans believe magic to be a law of nature, as yet misunderstood by contemporary science. Other Wiccans do not claim to know how magic works, merely believing that it does because they have seen it work for them.

Many early Wiccans, such as Alex Sanders and Doreen Valiente, referred to their own magic as “white magic”, which contrasted with “black magic”, which they associated with evil and Satanism. Some modern Wiccans however have stopped using this terminology, disagreeing that the colour black should have any associations with evil.

The scholars of religion, Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, claimed, in 1985, that Wicca had “reacted to secularization by a headlong plunge back into magic” and that it was a reactionary religion which would soon die out. This view was heavily criticised in 1999 by the historian Ronald Hutton, who claimed that the evidence displayed the very opposite, that “a large number [of Wiccans] were in jobs at the cutting edge [of scientific culture], such as computer technology.”

Morality

Wiccan morality is largely based on the Wiccan Rede, which states “an it harm none, do what ye will”. This is usually interpreted as a declaration of the freedom to act, along with the necessity of taking responsibility for what follows from one’s actions and minimising harm to oneself and others. Another common element of Wiccan morality is the Law of Threefold Return which holds that whatever benevolent or malevolent actions a person performs will return to that person with triple force, similar to the eastern idea of karma.

Many Wiccans also seek to cultivate a set of eight virtues mentioned in Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess, these being mirth, reverence, honour, humility, strength, beauty, power and compassion. In Valiente’s poem, they are ordered in pairs of complementary opposites, reflecting a dualism that is common throughout Wiccan philosophy. Some lineaged Wiccans also observe a set of 161 Wiccan Laws, commonly called the Craft Laws or Ardanes. Valiente, one of Gardner’s original high priestesses, argued that these rules were most likely invented by Gerald Gardner himself in mock-archaic language as the by-product of inner conflict within his Bricket Wood coven.

Although Gerald Gardner initially demonstrated an aversion to homosexuality, claiming that it brought down “the curse of the goddess”, it is now generally accepted in all traditions of Wicca.

Wiccans believe in the five classical elements, although unlike in ancient Greece, they are seen as symbolic as opposed to literal; that is, they are representations of the phases of matter. These five elements are invoked during many magical rituals, notably when consecrating a magic circle. The five elements are: Air, Fire, Water and Earth, plus Aether (or Spirit), which unites the other four.  The five elements are symbolised by the five points of the pentagram, the most prominently used symbol of Wicca.

Symbols

Various different symbols are used by Wiccans, similar to the use of the crucifix by Christians or the Star of David by Jews. The most notable of these is the pentagram, which has five points, each representing one of the five classical elements in Wicca (earth, air, fire, water and spirit) and also the idea that the human, with its five appendages, is a microcosm of the universe. Other symbols that are used include the triquetra and the triple Moon symbol of the Triple Goddess.

Scripture

In Wicca there is no set sacred text such as the Christian Bible or Islamic Qur’an, but there are various texts that were contained in Gerald Gardner’s Book of Shadows. Many of these texts he claimed to have at least partially rewritten, since the rituals of the group into which he was initiated were fragmentary. The most notable among these is the Charge of the Goddess, which contained material from Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899) and the works of 19th-20th century occultist Aleister Crowley. Other texts which are important to Wiccan beliefs and rituals include Eko Eko Azarak and the Wiccan laws.

Rituals

When practising magic and casting spells, as well as when celebrating various festivals, Wiccans use a variety of rituals. In typical rites, the coven or solitary assembles inside a ritually cast and purified magic circle. Casting the circle may involve the invocation of the “Guardians” of the cardinal points, alongside their respective classical element; Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Once the circle is cast, a seasonal ritual may be performed, prayers to the God and Goddess are said, and spells are sometimes worked.

Common tools in the Wiccan practice include a special set of magical tools. These usually include a knife called an athame, a wand, a pentacle and a chalice, but other tools include a broomstick known as a besom, a cauldron, candles, incense and a curved blade known as a boline. An altar is usually present in the circle, on which ritual tools are placed and representations of the God and the Goddess may be displayed. Before entering the circle, some traditions fast for the day, and/or ritually bathe. After a ritual has finished, the God, Goddess and Guardians are thanked and the circle is closed.

A sensationalised aspect of Wicca, particularly in Gardnerian Wicca, is the traditional practice of working in the nude, also known as skyclad. This practice seemingly derives from a line in Aradia, Charles Leland’s supposed record of Italian witchcraft. Skyclad working is mostly the province of Initiatory Wiccans, who are outnumbered by the less strictly observant Eclectics. When they work clothed, Wiccans may wear robes with cords tied around the waist, “Renaissance-faire”-type clothing or normal street clothes. Each full moon, and in some cases a new moon, is marked with a ritual called an Esbat.

Wheel of the Year

Wiccans also follow the Wheel of the Year and celebrate its eight festivals known as Sabbats. Four of these, the cross-quarter days, are Greater Sabbats, coinciding with Celtic fire festivals, and these were initially the only four sabbats. The other four are known as Lesser Sabbats, and comprise of the solstices and the equinoxes, and were only adopted in 1958 by the Bricket Wood coven. The names of these holidays are often taken from Germanic pagan and Celtic polytheistic holidays. However, the festivals are not reconstructive in nature nor do they often resemble their historical counterparts, instead exhibiting a form of universalism. Ritual observations may display cultural influence from the holidays from which they take their name as well as influence from other unrelated cultures.

The eight sabbats, beginning with Samhain, which is thought to have been the Celtic new year:

  • Samhain – Greater Sabbat of the dead
  • Yule – Lesser Sabbat, the Winter solstice
  • Imbolc – Greater Sabbat
  • Ostara – Lesser Sabbat, the Spring equinox
  • Beltane or May Eve – Greater Sabbat
  • Midsummer, or Litha – Lesser Sabbat, the Summer solstice
  • Lughnasadh, or Lammas – Greater Sabbat of the Harvest
  • Mabon – Lesser Sabbat, the Autumn equinox

Gardner made use of the English names of these holidays: “The four great Sabbats are Candlemass [sic], May Eve, Lammas, and Halloween; the equinoxes and solstices are celebrated also.”

Book of Shadows

In Wicca a private journal or core religious text known as a Book of Shadows is kept by practitioners, similar to a grimoire used by magicians. In lineaged groups, such as Gardnerian Wicca, the Book’s contents are kept secret from anyone but the members of the lineage concerned (i.e., those initiating and initiated by a particular coven). However, several proposed versions of the Book have been published. Sections of these published versions, such as the “Wiccan Rede” and the “Charge of the Goddess”, as well as other published writings about Wicca, have been adopted by non-initiates, or eclectic Wiccans. For many eclectics, they create their own personal books, whose contents are often only known by themselves.

Covens and Solitary Wiccans

Lineaged Wicca is organised into covens of initiated priests and priestesses. Covens are autonomous, and are generally headed by a High Priest and a High Priestess working in partnership, being a couple who have each been through their first, second and third degrees of initiation. Occasionally the leaders of a coven are only second-degree initiates, in which case they come under the rule of the parent coven. Initiation and training of new priesthood is most often performed within a coven environment, but this is not a necessity, and a few initiated Wiccans are unaffiliated with any coven.

A commonly quoted Wiccan tradition holds that the ideal number of members for a coven is thirteen, though this is not held as a hard-and-fast rule. Indeed, many U.S. covens are far smaller, though the membership may be augmented by unaffiliated Wiccans at “open” rituals. 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.

Initiation into a coven is traditionally preceded by a waiting period of at least a year and a day. A course of study may be set during this period. In some covens a “dedication” ceremony may be performed during this period, some time before the initiation proper, allowing the person to attend certain rituals on a probationary basis. Some solitary Wiccans also choose to study for a year and a day before their self-dedication to the religion.

In contrast, Eclectic Wiccans are more often than not solitary practitioners. Some of these “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. Eclectic Wiccans now significantly outnumber lineaged Wiccans, and their beliefs and practices tend to be much more varied.

In the United States, a number of legal decisions have improved and validated the status of Wiccans, especially Dettmer v. Landon in 1985. However, there is still hostility from some politicians and Christian organisations.

According to the history of Wicca 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). Modern scholarly investigations have revealed, however, that these trials were substantially fewer than claimed by Gardner, and seldom at the behest of religious authorities. Theories of an organised pan-European witch-cult, as well as mass trials thereof, have been largely discredited, but it is still common for Wiccans to feel solidarity with the victims of the witch trials.

There have been assertions made that Wicca is a form of Satanism, despite important differences between these religions, such as the lack of a Satan-like figure in Wiccan theology. Due to 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”.

Some people have accused Wicca of being anti-Christian, a claim disputed by Wiccans such as Doreen Valiente, who stated that whilst she knew many Wiccans who admired Jesus, “witches have little respect for the doctrines of the churches, which they regard as a lot of man-made dogma”.

Some have asserted that Wicca is simply an off-shoot of the New Age movement, a claim which is fiercely denied by Wiccans and also by historians such as Ronald Hutton, who noted that Wicca not only predates the New Age movement but also differs in its general world view.

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Profile: Iceland

Posted by jase on June 24, 2009

The Republic of Iceland is an island country located in the North Atlantic Ocean.  It has a population of about 320,000 and a total area of 103,000 km². Its capital and largest city is Reykjavík.

Located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is volcanically and geologically active on a large scale; this defines the landscape. The interior mainly consists of a plateau characterised by sand fields, mountains and glaciers, while many big glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Iceland has a temperate climate relative to its latitude and provides a habitable environment and nature.

According to Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent Norwegian settler on the island. Others had visited the island earlier and stayed over winter. Over the next centuries, people of Nordic origin settled in Iceland. Until the 20th century, the Icelandic population relied on fisheries and agriculture, and was from 1262 to 1918 a part of the Norwegian, and later the Danish monarchies. In the 20th century, Iceland’s economy and welfare system developed quickly. In recent decades, Iceland has implemented free trade in the European Economic Area and diversified from fishing to new economic fields in services, finance and various industries.

Today, Iceland has some of the world’s highest levels of economic and civil freedoms. In 2007, Iceland was ranked as the most developed country in the world by the United Nations’ Human Development Index. It was also the fourth most productive country per capita, and one of the most egalitarian, as rated by the Gini coefficient. Icelanders have a rich culture and heritage, such as cuisine and poetry and the medieval Icelandic Sagas are internationally renowned. Iceland is a member of the UN, NATO, EFTA, EEA, UEFA, and OECD. Iceland is the sole partner of the Faroe Islands signatory to the Hoyvík Agreement.

Iceland has been especially badly affected by the current world financial crisis. The nation’s ongoing economic crisis has caused significant unrest and made Iceland the first western country to borrow from the International Monetary Fund since 1976.[10] In February 2009 a minority government took office, headed by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the world’s first openly gay head of government in modern times.

Topography

Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the Arctic Circle, which passes through the small island of Grímsey off Iceland’s northern coast, but not through mainland Iceland. Unlike neighbouring Greenland, Iceland is a part of Europe, not of North America, though geologically the island is part of both continental plates. Because of cultural, economic and linguistic similarities, Iceland in many contexts is also included in Scandinavia making it a Nordic country. The closest bodies of land are Greenland (287 km) and the Faroe Islands (420 km). The closest distance to the mainland of Europe is 970 km (to Norway).

Geography

Iceland is the world’s 18th largest island, and Europe’s second largest island following Great Britain. The main island is 101,826 km² but the entire country is 103,000 km² (39,768.5 sq mi) in size, of which 62.7% is tundra. Lakes and glaciers cover 14.3%; only 23% is vegetated.[13] The largest lakes are Þórisvatn (Reservoir): 83–88 km² (32-34 sq mi) and Þingvallavatn: 82 km² (32 sq mi); other important lakes include Lögurinn and Mývatn. Öskjuvatn is the deepest lake at 220 m (722 ft).

Many fjords punctuate its 4,970 km long coastline, which is also where most settlements are situated because the island’s interior, the Highlands of Iceland, is a cold and uninhabitable combination of sand and mountains. The major towns are the capital Reykjavík, Kópavogur, Hafnarfjörður, Reykjanesbær, where the international airport is located, and Akureyri. The island of Grímsey on the Arctic Circle contains the northernmost habitation of Iceland.[14]

Iceland has four national parks: Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, Skaftafell National Park, Snæfellsjökull National Park, and Þingvellir National Park.

Recent History

In 1814, following the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark-Norway was broken up into two separate kingdoms via the Treaty of Kiel. Iceland remained a Danish dependency. A new independence movement arose under the leadership of Jón Sigurðsson, inspired by the romantic and nationalist ideologies of mainland Europe.

In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland home rule, which was expanded in 1904. The Act of Union, an agreement with Denmark signed on 1 December 1918, recognised Iceland as a fully sovereign state under the Danish king. During the last quarter of the 19th century many Icelanders emigrated to North America, mainly Canada, in search of better living conditions. About 15,000 out of a total population of 70,000 left.

Iceland during World War II joined Denmark in asserting neutrality. After the German occupation of Denmark on 9 April 1940, Iceland’s parliament declared that the Icelandic government should assume the Danish king’s authority and take control over foreign affairs and other matters previously handled by Denmark on behalf of Iceland. A month later, British Armed Forces occupied Iceland, violating Icelandic neutrality. In 1941, responsibility for the occupation was taken over by the United States with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade landing in the country. Allied occupation of Iceland lasted throughout the war.

On 31 December 1943, the Act of Union agreement expired after 25 years. Beginning on 20 May 1944, Icelanders voted in a four-day plebiscite on whether to terminate the union with Denmark and establish a republic. The vote was 97% in favour of ending the union and 95% in favour of the new republican constitution. Iceland formally became an independent republic on 17 June 1944, with Sveinn Björnsson as the first president.

In 1946, the Allied occupation force left Iceland, which formally became a member of NATO on 30 March 1949, amid domestic controversy and riots. On 5 May 1951, a defence agreement was signed with the United States. American troops returned to Iceland and remained throughout the Cold War, finally leaving in autumn of 2006.

The immediate post-war period was followed by substantial economic growth, driven by industrialisation of the fishing industry and Marshall aid and Keynesian government management of the economies of Europe, all of which promoted trade. The 1970s were marked by the Cod Wars – several disputes with the United Kingdom over Iceland’s extension of its fishing limits. The economy was greatly diversified and liberalised following Iceland’s joining of the European Economic Area in 1992.

In 2003, Iceland decided to transform itself from a nation best known for its fishing industry into a global financial powerhouse. By 2008 the nation’s currency (the króna) was defunct and the national debt had soared to over eight times GDP.

The southwest corner of Iceland is the most densely populated region. It is also the location of the capital Reykjavík, the northernmost capital in the world. The largest towns outside the greater Reykjavík area are Akureyri and Reykjanesbær, although the latter is relatively close to the capital.

Financial Crisis

The 2008–2009 Icelandic financial crisis is a major ongoing economic crisis in Iceland that involves the collapse of all three of the country’s major banks following their difficulties in refinancing their short-term debt and a run on deposits in the United Kingdom. Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s banking collapse is the largest suffered by any country in economic history.

The financial crisis has had serious consequences for the Icelandic economy; the national currency has fallen sharply in value, foreign currency transactions were virtually suspended for weeks, the market capitalisation of the Icelandic stock exchange has dropped by more than 90%, and a severe economic recession is expected.

Culture

Iceland’s official written and spoken language is Icelandic, a North Germanic language descended from Old Norse.  Icelanders enjoy freedom of religion under the constitution, though the National Church of Iceland, a Lutheran body, is the state church. The National Registry keeps account of the religious affiliation of every Icelandic citizen.

Facts

The social structure of Iceland is very dependent upon the personal car. Icelanders have one of the highest levels of car ownership per capita: on average one car per inhabitant older than 17 years. By tradition old or seldom used cars are often kept in laybys or turnoffs in rural areas.

Route 1 or the Ring Road (Icelandic: Þjóðvegur 1 or Hringvegur) is a main road in Iceland that runs around the island and connects all inhabited parts (the interior of the island is uninhabited). The road is 1,337 km long (830 miles). It has one lane in each direction, except near larger towns and cities and in the Hvalfjörður Tunnel where it has more lanes.

Renewable energy provides over 70% of the nation’s total energy, with the balance coming from imported coal and oil. Iceland also expects to be energy-independent by 2050.

Iceland is a very technologically advanced society. By 1999, 82.3% of Icelanders had access to a computer. Iceland also had 1,007 mobile phone subscriptions per 1,000 people in 2006, the 16th highest in the world.

Iceland is home to the European Mars Analog Research Station.

Some traditional beliefs remain today; for example, some Icelanders either believe in elves or are unwilling to rule out their existence. Inhabitants of mountainous areas still pay homage to these beliefs by constructing stone piles near roads and tracks. Iceland ranks first on the Human Development Index, and was recently ranked the fourth happiest country in the world.

Iceland is progressive in terms of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) matters. In 1996, Parliament passed legislation to create registered partnerships for same-sex couples, covering nearly all the rights and benefits of marriage. In 2006, by unanimous vote of Parliament, further legislation was passed, granting same-sex couples the same rights as different-sex couples in adoption, parenting and assisted insemination treatment.

Icelandic music is related to Nordic music, and includes vibrant Electronic music, folk and pop traditions, including medieval music group Voces Thules, alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, singers Björk and Emiliana Torrini; and Sigur Rós. The national anthem of Iceland is “Lofsöngur“, written by Matthías Jochumsson, with music by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson.

Traditional Icelandic music is strongly religious.  Icelandic contemporary music consists of a big group of bands, ranging from pop-rock groups such as Bang Gang, Quarashi and Amiina to solo ballad singers like Bubbi Morthens, Megas and Björgvin Halldórsson. Independent music is also very strong in Iceland, with bands such as múm, Sigur Rós and solo artists Emiliana Torrini and Mugison being fairly well-known outside Iceland.

Many Icelandic artists and bands have had great success internationally, most notably Björk and Sigur Rós but also Quarashi, Hera, Ampop, Mínus and múm. The main music festival is arguably Iceland Airwaves, an annual event on the Icelandic music scene, where Icelandic bands along with foreign ones occupy the clubs of Reykjavík for a week.

Sport is an important part of the Icelandic culture. The main traditional sport in Iceland is Glíma, a form of wrestling thought to have originated in medieval times.

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