In a casual tour of the Witchernet (my name for the Pagan/Wiccan/witchcraft presence on the web), I’ve found several sites where the terms “witch,” “Wiccan” and “Pagan” are used interchangeably. They’re not at all the same thing.
So what’s the difference?
All Witches are Pagans, but Not All Pagans are Witches
“Pagan” is based on the old Latin word paganus, meaning essentially “country bumpkin.” When Christianity was just beginning to spread throughout Europe, the Pagans were those people in the country who were the slowest to give up their old religions – the Old Ways that most Pagan traditions still cling to.
The Pagans were those people who didn’t worship the single Abrahamic God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Sometimes their actual worship didn’t survive, but their traditions did. The gods were forgotten, but the ways to honor them turned into the quaint folk traditions and superstitions that the Victorians gathered together into the volumes that resurrected Pagan thought.
Witches are specifically those people who practice magic, either with or without contact with Deity. Witchcraft is a skill set and a behavior more than a religion, although to some people, it’s their religion, too.
All Wiccans are Witches, but Not All Witches are Wiccan
Witches have been around for as long as humanity has existed. Wicca was invented (or described, or exposed, depending on your worldview) in the 1950’s by Gerald Gardner. Witchcraft is a set of abilities and rituals, sometimes conducted in a spiritual context. That context isn’t always Wiccan.
Witches can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, or atheist. They don’t have to be Wiccan. Often, witchcraft is a form of tradition that’s part of specific cultures – Santería in Spanish and Latin cultures, Strigeria in Italian groups, and so forth.
Wicca, however, is a form of witchcraft. The word “Wicca” is based on the Anglo-Saxon word wicce, which means “to twist” or “to use”, and its users are the Wise Ones. Wicca is a modern resurrection of ancient British and Celtic religion and shamanism. It’s a religion, with religious writ and certain rules of practice.
The Wiccan Rede
Often times, the Wiccan Rede is the dividing line. Wiccans using magic attempt to keep their spells and magic use within the lines of the Rede – do whatever you want to do, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
This can lead to a lot of philosophical discussions and agonizing. What’s harm? Where does free will come into the equation? Whose free will matters more, the Wiccan’s or the person who is receiving (or, Goddess protect, the target of) the spell?
Non-Wiccans don’t get involved in that sort of moral quandry. Their rule isn’t “Do as thou wilt and thou harm none.” Their rule is “Do as thou wilt,” which is an approach they share with Satanism.
IMPORTANT: Since I’ve said the dreaded “S” word, I need to point out immediately that witches, Pagans and Wiccans ARE NOT SATANISTS. Satanism is a religion that worships Satan, the adversary of the Christian God, in rebellion against the Abrahamic faiths.
Satanism and the Church of Satan have some interesting ideas, and they’ve done some interesting thing in the public sphere of late in defense of personal liberty, which I certainly appreciate and applaud. However, in their insistence on upending Christian ritual and performing it backwards and in a way that subverts and disrespects it, they’re declaring themselves (to me) as Christians in rebellion.
If you believe in Satan, you have to believe in the rest of the Book (Bible/Quran/Torah) as well. Want to give God the middle finger? Worship Satan. But don’t say you’re a witch and think that’s doing the job. There are Christian witches, after all.
Okay. Back to the whole Rede conversation.
Witches and Pagans don’t trouble themselves so much with the philosophical points and the finer-than-frogs’-hairs distinctions that Wiccans do. That’s not to say that they’re immoral, because they absolutely are not. Paganism and witchcraft exist with strong moral codes at their center, but they are independent-minded and don’t hold to the Wiccan rule.
In Wicca, love spells are considered wrong because they deprive the object of the spell of his or her free will. We believe that if someone is going to love us, it has to be on their own terms and of their own volition, not because we magically influenced or compelled them.
That’s a violation of their freedom, integrity and autonomy as human beings, and is absolutely harm. Love spells violate the Wiccan Rede. (A quick test to see if your spellwork is in line with the Rede: How would you feel if someone were to cast this same spell on you? Would you feel offended, violated or insulted? Would you feel controlled? If you can say yes to any of those questions, then the spell you’re contemplating will cause harm and is in violation of the Rede. Back to the drawing board.)
Witchcraft can be good, evil, neutral, white, black or gray. That’s part of what makes it fascinating. It’s very much a pattern of behavior and a set of skills that is aimed at bringing about changes in the world based upon the desires and intention of the person using the magic. If they’re strong enough to compel a change according to their desires, then the thinking goes that they should do exactly that.
Witchcraft is much, much older than Wicca. It involves the powers of the elements, the moon, the sun, and the earth, but it doesn’t necessarily worship these in specific deified form. It can if it wants to, but it isn’t built specifically around deity-worship. In Wicca, the deities are higher than we are, superior beings who guide and protect humanity and who are immortal and omnipotent.
In witchcraft, the spirits of the land and the elements are individuals much like humans, with human traits and abilities, good points and failings, and who are no more powerful than humans ourselves. They’re just different kinds of beings who can and sometimes will work in concert with humans who know how to invite their participation in the right way.
Witchcraft as practiced in the traditional communities who have continued its practice through centuries is a truly polytheistic and spiritual, almost animistic, belief. Gods, spirits, animals, Nature… all of it is part of a larger whole from which humans are separate. Because they’re not superior to mankind, they don’t need to be worshipped or appeased. They’re partners.
Wicca can be seen as a little futzy and confining. All this stuff about casting circles and calling the quarters and invoking specific gods can seem a little like pointless arm-waving to someone who just wants to mix up a potion to bring their neighbor good luck. Mixing the potion is witchcraft. Mixing a potion inside a sacred space created by casting a circle, calling the quarters and invoking the aid of Lugh of the Silver Arm is Wicca.
The biggest difference between witchcraft and Wicca lies in the person of the Triple Goddess. For us Wiccans, she is the central figure of our entire spirituality. The Maiden, Mother and Crone trichotomy guides us and is reflected back to us in everything we see and everything we touch. Traditional witches don’t see Her, and they don’t worship Her. Their traditions are based almost exclusively on so-called “folk beliefs” of Europe, and the Triple Goddess originated historically in Turkey and the Near East, then traveled with migrants through the rest of the world. Traditional witches feel that Nature is central to all things, not a Near Eastern goddess.
Wiccans believe in an afterlife where we will either be reincarnated or we will spend our eternity in the blessed lands, in company with the gods. We remain discrete souls with personalities and lessons to be learned and taught, and we can be part of Spirit, but we are still individual and distinct.
Traditional witchcraft believes that when we die, we return to the earth and our spirits are absorbed into the greater spirit of Life, which is the power of Nature. Sometimes, human spirits can travel to the Spirit World to lend their souls to Spirit, the power of the Unseen, which empowers all magickal work. Either way, human spirit is eternal but not personal.
Where Does Paganism Fit In?
Paganism is an umbrella term that’s a sort of catch-all to refer to anybody who doesn’t go to mosque, church or temple. It’s people who believe in and worship other gods, other powers, and natural forces. Under this umbrella understanding, all witches and all Wiccans are Pagans. That’s where it ends.
Where witches don’t worship gods with rituals and don’t accept other spirits as greater than their own, Pagans believe in and worship gods who are immortal and more powerful than humanity. They worship pantheons that were venerated by their ancestors, with rituals and prayers and magick appropriate to those ancestral paths.
The Asatru, for example, worship the Germanic and Norse gods, and they prefer to be called heathens rather than Pagans or what have you. They don’t necessarily perform magick, although they can, and they may have rituals, but they’re not prescribed in the same way that Wiccan rituals are.
Wicca is a little elitist and exclusionary, and Paganism largely is not. Wicca requires a certain level of initiation and ceremony, whereas Paganism often doesn’t require any initiations at all. Self-initiation is sometimes frowned upon by the strictest Wiccan covens, as is solitary practice, which puts me in a bit of a pickle; Paganism, largely, is just fine with self-initiation, or no initiation, or public ritual initiation. It’s just a detail, and Paganism is a little lax, intentionally, with details.
So What’s My Point?
I suppose my point in all of this is that if you’re going to lob labels around, do it correctly. Be specific. If you want to call someone Wiccan, make sure you’re dealing with someone who’s been initiated into one of the traditions begun by Gerald Gardner, and who obeys the Wiccan Rede and follows the structure of ritual set forth in Wiccan belief in regard to circles, quarters, and such. Don’t assume that “Wicca” covers all aspects of Paganism, because it doesn’t.
It’s very dangerous to speak in generalities any time you’re dealing with groups of human beings. Painting any population with a wide brush is usually inaccurate, unfair, ignorant on your part and often damaging and hurtful to the people you’re discussing. I suspect I’ve been guilty of some of that in these blog posts, and because I’m a fallible human, I know I’ve done so in the past in general. I’ve lived a lot of years – you don’t get to be a near-Crone without making some mistakes along the way.
If you want to know what religion or spiritual practice someone follows, don’t assume. Ask. I don’t know anyone who would get offended at being asked that question. (If they do get offended, chances are that there’s something else going on that’s not related to religion at all. They might just be private people, and some folks are hostile to everybody, no matter what.)
It’s possible to offend people when you’re talking about religion. That’s why religion is one of the subjects you’re never supposed to bring up in polite conversation. For those of us with a more seeker-ly bent, however, questions are unavoidable. Humans are curious creatures, and most of us have a need to learn. That leads to questions, which lead to exploration, which can sometimes lead to confusion.
I’m well aware that this post has probably done nothing to alleviate any confusion that you might have. I hope it’s not made the confusion worse!
Education is the key here. Educate yourself about the different faith ways and practices of the people around you, and the different options that exist out in the world.
You might find something that’s appealing, either to the point where you either add it to your existing practice or you jump ship all together from what you’ve been doing to the new school of thought you’ve just encountered.
I’ll be honest, you might encounter something that’s repellent to you, too. Humanity is like that. We’re a complicated bunch, and it stands to reason that our approach to religion would be complicated, too.
As you go forward, be aware that there are distinctions between groups you might not have considered, but which are very important to the people involved. Be respectful of how much of an emotional and spiritual investment those people have in the paths they’re following. Be ready to learn and have an open mind.
Unfortunately, depending on whom you’re speaking to, you might also need some asbestos underwear because there are minefields out there that you might blunder into completely innocently. Some witches get very upset when you accuse them of being Wiccan, and some Wiccans get deeply annoyed when you tell them that they’re practicing a faith with modern origins. They just have a lot invested into their beliefs, and they defend those beliefs strongly. They might be harsh about it, and they might get angry. Try to forgive them. They’re only human, after all.
You might say that religion is the most human thing there is.
Be careful, be blessed, and be well until next time. I bid you love and peace.