I was taught that Wicca has its etymology in the Anglo-Saxon 'wis'. It's the same root word which gives us 'wizard', 'witch' and 'wise', hence the reference to Wicca being the Path of the Wise.
But what were we supposed to be so wise about?
For earlier societies, practitioners were the priests and priestesses of a tribe. There was communion with the Gods and magical acts designed to ensure the welfare of the people.
This could take the form of counseling, in both the political and psychological senses, or elaborate rituals to bring prosperity and protection.They were the people who knew the histories, legends, genealogies and law. They had knowledge of astronomy and the passing of the seasons. They knew when to sow and when to reap. They were the primitive scientists, psychologists and sociologists.
The coming of Christianity usurped these roles. They were performed by the clergy of a new religion.
However, there was one area in which the Christian priests didn't venture. They were not physical healers. They were more concerned with the curing of souls. This was all well and good, but what if you couldn't concentrate on your prayers because of your blinding headache or the pain in your knee?
In time, the monasteries and nunneries became involved in the healing. Their hospitals originally had a function similar to the modern hostels and hostelries, but quickly came to focus on sick and injured pilgrims. This gave rise to hospitals as we know them today. But back in the villages, home care was still the province of the earlier religions.
Practitioners of Paganism were only slowly moved to the edges of society, but they were never completely eradicated. This was because they were too useful. These were the people with knowledge of herbalism and the workings of the human body. In an age before doctors and hospitals, they were the ones who looked to their community's health.
As the medieval period moved on into the coming of the Age of Reason, sensational witch trials saw people tortured and killed. Their charges universally concern cavorting with the Christian Devil, bewitching individuals into doing terrible deeds, raising storms, killing cattle or talking to wild animals.
Conspicuous by their absence in the court accounts are the people, commonly referred to as witches, who were effectively the village healer. No-one was willing to testify against them because they would instantly lose their healthcare system. They existed. The history books are full of them. They just weren't persecuted.
Instead 16th and 17th century academics tried to force a false distinction between the practitioners brought to trial and those free to continue their craft. There were evil witches and good witches; 'black' witches and 'white' witches. Those skilled in herbalism were called 'cunning-folk', further dissociating them from their allegedly Satanic brethren.
It was all ridiculous, of course. There was never any difference in the minds of ordinary people, nor in the witches themselves. But it facilitated a dual approach to them, which kept everyone happy, as long as they didn't think too deeply about it.
Even today, a stereotype of witches in popular culture sees us bent over a bubbling cauldron, muttering incantations. Have you never wondered what was being brought to the boil? It was the medicines, balms, potions and tinctures that were destined to treat an ailing patient.
So what was the 'wisdom' in the name of 'witch'? It was knowledge of herbalism and other natural remedies.