"Wicca" is a word popularized by Gerald Gardner when he used it to describe a form of Witchcraft characterized by: a feminine as well as masculine form of the divine, reverence for the natural world, and practices drawing from a long tradition of folk and ceremonial magic. He claimed that witchcraft was (and is) a religion in itself, rather than being the deviant superstitious practice that many scholars still consider it. (The claim that Witchcraft is really a religion is attributed Margaret Murray's work).
After he went public with his claims several other people (Sybil Leek, Robert Cochrane, Alex Sanders, to name the most famous) came forward claiming that they also had been initiated into Covens that were pre-Christian religious survivals. Because Gardner was being accepted many of them used the same vocabulary he did to substantiate their claims. None of these claims to a pre-Gardner Coven can be substantiated. None of them can be disproved either.
The 1800s were a popular time for the study of folklore and the romanticizing of pre-Christian Britain. I would argue that the Romantic period
was the womb that birthed the Neo-Pagan movement. Romanticism
created the "cultic milieu"
that feeds the Neo-Age movement. Neo-Paganism differs from other New-Age movements by not being as concerned with a literal "New Age" (or even a linear view of time), and not being as concerned with issues of "light vs. dark"."New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought"
by Wouter J. Hanegraaff.
"All New Age religion is characterized by a criticism of dualistic and reductionistic tendencies in (modern) western culture, as exemplified by (what is emically perceived as) dogmatic Christianity, on the one hand, and rationalistic/scientistic ideologies, on the other. It believes that there is a "third option" which rejects neither religion and spirituality nor science and rationality, but combines them in a higher synthesis. It claims that the two trends which have hitherto dominated western culture (dogmatic Christianity and an equally dogmatic rational/scientistic ideology) have been responsible for the current world crisis, and that the latter will only be resolved if and when this third option becomes dominant in society."
It is most likely (but not provable) that Gardner drew on the sources avaible in the cultic milieu to form religious practice that met his needs. In "The Great Wicca Hoax: Part I"
and Part II
Adrian Bott argues that one of Gardner's prime influences were his affair with his mistress Edith Grimes, later known as Dafo. Not only did Gardner's Wicca make their affair a holy rite but it fit in with Edith's belief that she was the reincarnation of a Witch.
"So it was that Wicca was born, as a sacred context within which two people who desired one another could consummate that love. By making it sacred, it was redeemed from being mere adultery. By assuming the role of once-persecuted witches, the importance of security was made manifest. The metaphysics of the cult drew directly from Thelemic ideology; a bountiful Goddess who demanded nothing in sacrifice, a potent male principle. Edith, formerly a witch only by reincarnation, acquired formal status as a Priestess."
Once Gardner went public with his work it became part of the cultic milieu that other people used to form their practices.
Because of the oaths of secrecy many of texts that can be traced definitively to Gardner were passed off as "traditional". When later practitioners began to break their oaths and publish the material (thinking it was "traditional" and therefore not subject to copyright) the deception was exposed.
The British Traditional Wicca position, that only those initiated in apostolic succession from someone who has an unfalsifiable claim to New Forest Coven is practicing Wicca, is with in their rights as a faith group.
But those of us without an apostolic succession can also make valid claims based on current evidence.
The claims of Eclectic Wiccans are based on ideas about the nature of religion and religious truth
It is a matter of record that Wicca is a form of Witchcraft and that Gardner either made substantial changes or had very little "traditional" material to start with. He made no claim to be divinely inspired in his changes. His validity claim was based on links to pre-Christian paganism. If one rejects the claim to survival of pre-Christian religion (as a religion) than the only validity Wicca has as religion is the sincere faith of its practitioners. Gardner did not claim to have been divinely inspired. Faith in Wicca is not faith in Gardner. But all Wiccan religious practice can be traced to Gardner.
For most people who call themselves Wiccan "doing what Gardner did" means knowingly using material that can clearly be traced to Gardner but supplementing it with historical and folkloric information to create a living spiritual practice that can change with the needs of the practitioners, just as he did."Did Gardner Invent the Craft? History Closes on the Truth..."
by Leon Reed
One line Heselton finds in Gardner's writings, which I found extremely significant, was "The 'Book of Shadows' is not a Bible or Koran, but a personal 'cookbook' of spells that the individual witch has found to work. I am giving you my book to copy to get you started: it contains the spells and rituals that worked for me. As you gain in experience, add the successful spells that you have made up, and discard those that didn't work for you!"