What is Wicca?
Wicca is not an ancient religion. In fact, it's not very old at all, or at least the religion currently recognized as Wicca isn't. Modern Wicca is a reconstructionist religion that was formed based on knowledge of older religious practices. Many of the beliefs and practices that were held during the early times of modern Wicca were pieced together from surviving covens' Books of Shadows, or at least that's the theory. Wicca isn't just a nature based religion, it's a fertility religion (or, an alternative description is that it's just based on ancient fertility religions). Sex magick is involved in many Wiccan traditions. Does that mean there are orgies at every coven meeting? No. Sex magick is a very powerful thing, and very sacred. I won't go into that more now because for one thing I'm tired, and I'm also not extremely well versed in sex magick.
Wicca came about in the 1930s-1950s in Europe and you can thank Gerald Gardner in large part for it, and you can certainly thank him for it's current acceptance in the world. Gardner was the first person who really "came out" and said that what Margaret Murray (author of The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches) had claimed had merit, and Witchcraft was still alive, and he knew that because he was a Witch. Gardner tends to be looked at as the founder of modern Wicca and created the Gardnerian Tradition of Wicca, which is probably one of the most well-known traditions in existence today.
Gardnerian Wicca began around the 1950s after Gardner basically decided to re-write things for himself, the way he thought they should be. Prior to founding his own coven, Gardner had been (according to him, at least) initiated into an existing coven. He published one fictional book depicting Witchcraft (High Magick's Aid), and later was able to further persuade his coven into allowing him to reveal more truths of Witchcraft in a non-fiction book Witchcraft Today. There are many stories surrounding Gardner and whether he really did originally belong to a coven or not, but regardless, we should all be thankful to him for having the guts to come out of the broom closet and speak out for Witches and Witchcraft, and for correcting some misconceptions about Witchcraft.
Now back to what Gardnerian Wicca is! Basically, it's a form of Wicca with degree systems within the covens, and one must be initiated into the coven. They also work skyclad. There is no self-initiation. Degree systems typically go by the "Year and a Day" of study practices, meaning that with each degree, the person must study for a minimum of one year and one day to advance to the next degree. If I'm not mistaken, a third degree person earns the status of High Priest(ess) and is then capable of leaving the Mother coven and forming a new one (or "hiving").
After Gardnerian Wicca, there are countless other "branches" of Wicca, some claiming to be older, some are newer. I'll touch on a few briefly.
Alexandrian Wicca: This was formed by Alexander Sanders in the 1960s, and is similar to Gardnerian Wicca. They also practice skyclad, but they place more emphasis on ceremonial magick.
Seax-Wicca: This was formed by Raymond Buckland in the 1970s. Buckland was a protege of Gerald Gardner and he formed this tradition in the US when he moved here. This tradition is based on Saxon traditions, but Buckland created it himself. The coven members can decide for themselves if they work skyclad or robed. You can be initiated through the coven, or studying on your own.
Dianic Wicca: This tradition focuses almost exclusively (or totally exclusively) on the Goddess in her three aspects. Many Dianic covens are female only, but in recent years there have been men accepted in some. Z. Budapest is typically thought of as the founder of Dianic Wicca, in the 1970s.
There are also Eclectic Wiccans. These are the Wiccans who follow the general beliefs of Wicca, but do not follow one set path. There are Eclectic covens out there, but most Eclectics seem to be solitary practitioners.
Many Wiccans are Witches, but not ALL, and not ALL Witches are Wiccan.
Witchcraft and Magick
Witchcraft is a practice, or a craft. It's a way of life for many, just like religion. I think that's one reason it's typically considered a religion, but I have to disagree. Someone from any religion, or someone with no religion, can be a Witch, and practice Witchcraft and Magick.
First, let's address the word "Magick." It's spelled with a "k" at the end when we're talking about Witchcraft, to distinguish between our form of Magick and the magic performed by stage magicians. "Magic" is an illusion, such as pulling rabbits from hats and sawing people in half on stage for entertainment. "Magick" is the use of energy to produce a change that you desire.
Witchraft has a long and very ugly history, thanks in large part to slander and Witch hunts (such as The Burning Times). It also takes on different names, depending on what it is exactly that you're looking at. For example, throughout history people such as Shamans, midwives and healers have been (or could be) considered Witches. In a way, that's an accurate description, though I'm sure at least some of them would find the term offensive because of the negative connotations the word carries with it. They can be described as Witches for using Magick and Witchcraft in their everyday lives, even if they wouldn't call it that. Using herbs to cure things can be considered Witchcraft. Using herbs, stones, cards, etc. to find answers can be considered part of Witchcraft. Some people would still consider Jesus a Witch because of the way he caused changes, such as healing the sick.
Have you ever wished so hard for something and it came to you? That can be considered Witchraft, or Magick. For it to work when you cast a spell or do anything, really, you have to want it bad enough. You have to really believe it's going to happen. (Sorry I'm getting off topic some, it's really late, so I'll try to wrap this up.)
Most Witches (even if they don't call themselves by that term) end up doing Magick without even realizing it. You don't have to sit down and perform an elaborate spell with tons of props for your result to come about. I think many of us even tend to perform spells accidentally, or intentionally using only our minds (visualization). I'm not saying that you should not use props. For many, they help with the visualization and energy directing processes, and that's great. I'm simply saying that Magick can happen without them, as well.
And now I'm thoroughly exhausted and heading to bed. I'm probably going to read this tomorrow and think, "Shit, I didn't say that right," about something, but oh well. Criticize if you like, correct me if I've misrepresented something, or explain something if I didn't do it well (which I'm sure I didn't).