Witch or Wiccan?
An Historical Overview and their Use Within Contemporary Paganism

(submitted anonymously by a student)


Today, the words “Witch” and “Wiccan” are often used synonymously, though they really, initially, should be considered two different things. There are a few reasons why this confusion has happened, and it is the focus of this little commentary to explain them. However, those with very little knowledge of Pagans, Witches, and Wiccans may find this commentary much clearer if it is prefaced with a short historical overview.


 Since the time man first began to walk and reason, he placed great power in the rising of the sun and moon, the seasonal changes, the growing of plants, and in the ability of women (and animals) to give birth. They saw these things as “magical” and certainly beyond their abilities. In their desire to understand their place in the cosmos and take control of these seemingly magical things around them, early man created a religion, composing ritual and dance honoring the gods and goddesses of the sun, the moon, and the earth. He would jump as high as possible in his fields hoping to encourage his crops to grow strong and tall. He donned a deerskin and antlers to honor the gods of the hunt, hoping they would bestow their favor on him during the next day’s quest for game. In times of drought, he would take one of his animals and sacrifice it to appease the gods’ displeasure.

As man became more social and the cave became too elementary and dangerously solitary, men took their wives and grouped themselves in villages and towns, where they continued to raise their children, grow crops, and raise livestock. In an effort to plant and harvest optimally, mate his livestock to increase his herds, and seek relief from the things that ailed him, man sought the advice of the village wise person. Usually a woman, she seemed “connected” to the natural energies around her. She knew which herb to use for an ailment and how to prepare it, what phase of the moon and time of the year to plant crops in, and assisted in birthing babies. The Anglo-Saxons had a word for her kind: wita. Meaning “wise one,” wita was then broken into genders, “wicce” for a woman (pronounced witch-eh), and “wicca” for a man (pronounced witch-ah).[1] (Witchery, sec. Wicca) Over time, the pronunciations were blurred, and the ending syllables dropped to form one word for both sexes: witch.

As society evolved, kings were crowned, wars were fought, and Yeshua bar Joseph was born in Bethlehem. The religion that followed his death eventually centered itself in Rome, and the early heads of the church were as political and ambitious as they were religious. They felt compelled to spread their religion to the four corners of the known world and to convert as many people as possible in any way necessary. This was not a particularly hard thing to do in the larger towns and cities, but the outskirts were another matter. There, the people – known as “pagans”[2] - were not as socially connected with each other or as spiritually available as those in the cities. Their world was still tied to the earth, moon, stars, herbs and crops. The village wise woman - the witch - with her connection to the earth’s energy, was still valued and her advice sought.

In an effort to convince the witches and pagans to convert to Christianity, some of the pagan holidays were superimposed with Christian ones. Samhain and Yule were co-opted, renamed by the church, and became All Souls Day and Christmas, respectively. Churches were built over pagan worship sites. (Saunders) Eventually, Christianity became the dominant religion, and those pagans that chose to revere their old gods were looked upon with suspicion.

During the Inquisition, the church sent emissaries far and wide to seek out, and in many places eliminate, all heretics. While, according to the church’s definition, a pagan or a witch is not essentially a heretic (Knight, sec. Heretic), the frenzy created by the fear of the Inquisition’s leaders led some pagans and witches to suffer torture and death. The remaining pagans and witches went into hiding, handing their beliefs and practices down to sons and daughters, honoring the gods and the changing of the seasons as a family. Many did this in secret, all the while attending church and lighting candles to the Virgin Mary, who they could easily see as one of their goddesses.

Then in the late 1930s, Gerald Gardner was introduced to a Witch[3] family, living in the New Forest area of Great Britain. Claiming that some of his ancestors were also Witches, he was taken in and eventually initiated as a Witch in 1939. Wanting to write about his newly found religion, he procured permission from the group’s High Priestess[4], Dorothy Clutterbuck, to write a work - mostly fiction - with some of the practices and beliefs of the Witches contained within the pages. Published under his Witchcraft name, Scire, High Magick’s Aid was published in 1949.

Sometime around 1950, Dorothy Clutterbuck died. The New Forest Witches were all the Witches that Gardner knew, and many of them were elderly. Not wanting that this craft of the wise should die out and be forgotten, he again requested of his coven permission to write another book, this time a factual one regarding Witchcraft and its practices. Witchcraft Today was published not long after the last of the laws against Witchcraft were repealed in England in 1951. This time the book was noticed, and Gardner received letters from people wanting to know more about Witchcraft. He also received letters from other covens, also thinking they were the last surviving group, and happy to find out the Craft was alive elsewhere. (Buckland, Introduction) The book also was landmark in its use of the word “Wica” to mean a religion, and “Wicans” as those that practice the religion. It is also around this time that Gardner broke off from the New Forest coven and started his own.

The Confusion Begins:

It is here that Wicca and Witchcraft divide. It had been, and still is among the more traditional covens,[5] that each initiate should copy the coven’s Book of Shadows in their own hand.[6] It is important to note that it is not known how much of the Book of Shadows belonging to the New Forest coven Gardner managed to copy. Gardner had dyslexia, and copying anything would have been a difficult chore. It is believed that Gardner’s copy of the Book of Shadows, at the very least, contained large holes and lines that were illegible. To make his copy complete, Gardner “borrowed” some rituals and writings from other magical sources, and was assisted in its assembly by the High Priestess of his coven, Doreen Valiente. (Buckland, 146) Gardner’s “brand” of Witchcraft became known as Gardnerian Wicca. Every true Gardnerian has a “lineage,” which is the line of initiating High Priestesses back to Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner. Initiates are asked to memorize theirs, and are allowed to recite it when asked.

At this point, there are now two distinct, but similar, religions: the larger religion of the Witches of the New Forest, and the smaller, newer one, Wicca. This is where the general distinction is to be made between Witch and Wiccan. Knowing the difference would be easy. One could simply ask if one encountered a Witch: are you Wiccan, or non-Wiccan?

However, events of the last thirty years have only served to muddle the differences, beginning innocently enough with the Wiccans. Decades ago, hospitals required that a person registering for admittance list their religious preference. Words like “Pagan” and “Witch” were blasphemous things to utter to the general populace. However, hardly anyone knew what Wicca was. One could write or utter “Wicca” without causing too much of a stir. So, it came to pass that Wiccans allowed Witches and Pagans to use “Wicca” on the registration forms. Today, hospitals generally no longer ask this question, so there is no longer a need to “borrow” the name.

The late 1960s heralded the Age of Aquarius, a great interest in anything occult, and publishing houses were racing to their presses to crank out book after book to satisfy the demand for information on the subject. Authors like Hans Holzer, June Johns, Sybil Leek and Dr. Leo Martello, to name a few, opened the public’s eyes to new avenues of spirituality. The Witches in the group, Sybil Leek and Dr. Martello, talked of Witchcraft, while non-Witch authors like Hans Holzer and June Johns - who wrote a loose biography on Alex Saunders (the originator of Alexandrian Wicca) - used “Witch” synonymously with “Wiccan.”

Readers gobbled up these books, and wanted more, and publishers gave it to them. Unfortunately, though, at least one of the largest publishers of such books saw that there was more money to be made off of books that explained Witchcraft and Wicca in synonymous ways. So, their authors were informed that any accepted manuscripts must use the terms synonymously.

This explosion of interest also affected the Pagan community. Hundreds of people came to the community begging to be taught. However, Witchcraft and Wicca, until that time, were secretive, and did not have the training covens or teaching elders to screen[7] and accept the large numbers of people that wanted to learn the mysteries. Many wishing to be taught were turned away or ignored. This left the publishing houses to continue to satisfy their need for knowledge.

It should be remembered that publishing houses exist to make a profit. Not only were some houses mandating that their authors use Wicca and Witchcraft to mean the same thing, some were accepting books that were poor – or nonexistent - in scholarship. This caused the publishing of books that, even today, teaching elders have a good giggle over. Also, books have been published that make the claim to contain the complete Gardnerian Book of Shadows,[8] as well as others that claim that Wicca can be self-taught. 

These two claims have greatly increased the Wicca-Witch confusion. Seekers not finding teachers have resorted to using these books as guides for learning Wicca and forming their own covens. They copy the BoS from the book, proclaim themselves self-initiated, as well as High Priests or High Priestesses, and open their “doors” to others wishing to learn. Correspondence schools have been created, and charge those wishing to learn a great deal of money.[9]

There then surfaced another problem. Real Wiccans, those of Gardnerian descent as well as other Traditions[10] that have evolved over time, did not want to acknowledge the self-taught “Wiccan.” Non-Wiccan Witches didn’t particularly want them, either. So, since most book-taught “Wiccans” have also co-opted principles and rituals from other systems, the word “eclectic” was given to what they do. Traditional Wiccans could now be distinguished from Eclectic Wiccans. However, many traditional Wiccans are not comfortable with the new terminology, claiming that Eclectic Wicca is too close to their own name, and has little-to-nothing to do with their religious path. In recent years, there has been a good deal of discussion in regard to re-naming the Eclectic Wiccans, but no equitable decision has been reached.

So, what of those Witches that are not Wiccan? They are simply Witches, and practice folk magic and revere their gods in their own way. They do not subscribe to the pick-and-choose mindset of the Eclectic Wiccan.[11] They do not subscribe to the Wiccans’ Three-fold Law or the Rede,[12] choosing instead to let their care for all living things to be their guide to any action or non-action. They do not conduct ritual or cast spells in prescribed ways. She – or he – is by nature eclectic, going by instinct to get the task completed. There are many varieties of Witches: Hereditary, Kitchen, Hedge, Strega, Fairy, etc, and they each have identifying characteristics. For instance, a Hedge Witch mainly specializes in herbs and their uses, a Kitchen Witch practices her Craft with preparations from the kitchen and hearth, a Hereditary Witch practices as her family has (and most probably still does!), a Strega is an Italian Witch, and a Fairy Witch works with faerie-folk. Within their realm of specialization, a Witch will use whatever works to achieve their purpose, hence their eclectic characteristic. One Witch’s methodology of practice may be completely different from another Witch’s.

Looking at the practices of Witchcraft and Wicca, one sees that the practice of Wicca is very young. Witchcraft has been practiced longer, and in more varied ways. Wicca does not depend on Witchcraft for its survival, but owes it a debt of gratitude for its origination. There is a saying in the Pagan community: “All Wiccans are Witches, but not all Witches are Wiccan.” While the two, at times, are indeed synonymous, this is not always the case. How does one, then, distinguish the two? The answer could not be more simpler: ask. Few would be offended, and one just might be surprised at the answers received!

Works Cited

Buckland, Raymond. Witchcraft from the Inside. 3rd ed. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn. 1995

Buckland, Raymond. “Introduction”. Witchcraft Today. By Gerald B. Gardner. 1951. North Carolina: Mercury. 1999. i-vii.

Knight, Kevin. New Advent. 15 Sept. 2003. Catholic Encyclopedia. 26 Nov. 2003. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07256b.htm

Saunders, William P., Fr. “Cathedrals, Shrines and Basilicas”. Catholic Herald. 04 July. 2002. 26 Nov. 2003. http://www.catholicherald.com/Saunders/02ws/ws020704.htm

Welcome to Witchery. Witchery.ca. 26 Nov. 2003. http://www.witchery.ca/wicca/wicken.htm


[1] There are many different theorized and accepted etymologies for the word “witch.” This is the one to which this author subscribes.

[2] From Latin “paganus” - country dweller.

[3] Note the capitalization of the word “Witch.” This is to differentiate it as a religion, and will be used accordingly throughout the rest of this commentary. “Pagan” will also be capitalized, and used as an umbrella term for those that do not follow major religious systems.

[4] The leader of a coven is traditionally a woman, and acknowledged by this title. The male leader, usually subordinate to the woman, is known as the High Priest.

[5] A group of Witches that study and practice together on a continuing basis. 13 are the traditional number of participants in a coven: 11 Witches and a High Priestess and High Priest.

[6] A book of coven rituals and practices. Each coven had their own and members were asked not to divulge the contents to outsiders, and most times, to other Witches. This is a survival mechanism first begun during the Inquisition, and is now considered one of many coven traditions. In written text, it is sometimes abbreviated as “BoS.”

[7] Witchcraft and Wicca are difficult paths to follow, are best taught one-on-one, and training may take years. As in any religion, most seekers are just that – people who are looking. They usually soon move on to yet another system of spirituality. It is one of the jobs of the training elder to “weed out” the seekers from those that are sincere in their desire to follow the path.

[8] These claims cannot be substantiated. One of the oaths taken at Gardnerian coven initiation is that the contents of their BoS should never be revealed to any “outsiders.” Gardnerians take this oath seriously, and refuse to acknowledge the claim when asked.

[9] One traditional Craft teaching is that Craft knowledge and training should be free of charge.

[10] From Gardnerian Wicca followed Alexandrian, Kingstone, Protean, Star Fire Rising, and Seax-Wica to name a few. These are generally acknowledged to be true Wiccan religions, but there are a few that feel that Gardnerians are the only “true” Wiccans.

[11] There are beliefs that remain common to the Wiccan as well as the non-Wiccan Witch, such as the belief in reincarnation, the practice of magic, and the acknowledgment of a God and Goddess. Many Eclectic Wiccans feel it permissible to eschew one or more of those beliefs and still remain an Eclectic Wiccan.

[12] The Three-fold law states that anything one does, good or bad, will come back to one three times over. The Rede, in simple form, declares: “An it harm none; do what ye Will.”