What you’ve all been waiting for.
Wicca effectively began with a man named Gerald Gardner in the mid 20th century. Many people give the year 1954 as its inception, because this is when Gardner published Witchcraft Today. Gardner had, however, already published High Magic’s Aid in 1949 under the pseudonym Scire, a novel that incorporated many of his beliefs. Indeed, some British Traditional covens suggest (or insist) that potential students first read High Magic’s Aid and see if its contents resonate with the reader, indicating that they may be a good fit for Traditional training and practice.
Gardner claimed that in 1939 he was initiated into the New Forest Coven by one Dorothy Clutterbuck. Whether this coven ever existed is still in question today, and if it did, how old it actually was. Historian Ronald Hutton is convinced that Ms. Clutterbuck, while a real person, had nothing to do with Gardner’s religious or magical practices. However, Edith Grimes, also known as Dafo, almost assuredly was involved with the development of his beliefs. The exact origins of her information – and what all she might have even communicated – is still the subject of much debate.
Gardner claimed to have been initiated into the Old Religion – he even had Margaret Murray write the forward of Witchcraft Today. He also used Murray’s tern witch-cult, and spoke of members being of the Wica, although he never (in his published works at least) used the word Wicca. The Old Religion was theoretically pagan in origin. However, the simple fact is that much of Gardner’s practices are clearly rooted in the ceremonial magic of his contemporaries and near contemporaries. Gardner was a brief friend of occultist Aleister Crowley (they met only a year before Crowley’s death) and a member of the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis). He was a Co-Mason, whose practices were based on those of the Freemasons, and would have had access to information on the general practices of the Golden Dawn. Gardner’s views of magic and religion certainly did vary from that of ceremonial magic, which was rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, but they are not clearly rooted in any particular pagan tradition, although the influences of various practices are evident.
Gardner’s Wicca was initiatory, and Gardnerian Wicca continues to be so to this day – if you’re not a member, you can’t participate. You can’t even learn a great deal about them. Other initiatory Traditions also emerged, and Gardner embraced them as being branches of the Old Religion. Eventually, others started to emerge that claimed no formal membership in the Old Religion but who nevertheless followed and practiced its ways. All of these practices were bound up under the term witchcraft, which became synonymous with Wicca. Today, those terms are frequently separated, but who falls under what is still debated. (The definitions that I personally find most prevalent, and which I use throughout this site, are found under Wiccans, Witches, and Pagans.)
Wicca certainly bears the influence of older pagan (and non-pagan) traditions, but they are pieces – sometimes tiny pieces – fit together into new meanings and context. Evidence continues to be entirely lacking that anything like Wicca existed in ancient times, and it bears many marks of modern thought, such as the arrangement of Maid/Mother/Crone, which was first expressed in 1949. (See Triple Goddess) Was Gardner taught something by Dafo? Probably. Possibly he even believed that she was teaching him something old. She probably did not hand him Wicca as a developed package, however. Even Gardner admitted that the rituals were “fragmentary,” justifying the need for him to supplement them with more modern material.
Some Wiccans feel they are baseless without an ancient foundation beneath their practices. The truth is your base is pretty shaky if it depends upon ancient pedigree for you to consider it legitimate. It is not that Wicca has no foundation. That foundation is simply somewhere other than where some once thought. All religions are new at some point. Wicca’s foundation (at least it’s public, non-oathbound face) is Gardner, with roots that snake out and draw upon all manner of source material, including considerable connections with the 19th and 20th century occult revival, which in turn have complex roots in older traditions.