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
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).
(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”
- 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
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,
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,
that each initiate should copy the coven’s Book of Shadows in their own hand.
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
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
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
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,
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.
There then surfaced
another problem. Real Wiccans, those of Gardnerian descent as well as other
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
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.
They do not subscribe to the Wiccans’ Three-fold Law or the Rede,
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
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!
Buckland, Raymond. Witchcraft
from the Inside. 3rd ed. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn. 1995
“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
 There are many different theorized and accepted etymologies for the word “witch.” This is the one to which this author subscribes.
 From Latin “paganus” - country dweller.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.”
 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.
 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.
 One traditional Craft teaching is that Craft knowledge and training should be free of charge.
 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.
 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.
 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.”