The Name Game: Witch vs. Pagan
Article ID: 11893
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: August 26th. 2007
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What’s the difference between “Witch” and “Pagan?” In some cases the two can be interchangeable; sometimes “Witch” fits into “Pagan” like a category thereof, and I personally have used both terms to refer to myself, usually depending on who I’m talking to.
When I’m easing someone into the idea that I’m not a member of one of the major monotheistic religions (default Christianity—I live in the South), I invariably use the word “Pagan.”
It’s the spoonful of sugar that can help my non-Jesus-Christ-as-my-personal-Lord-and-Savior-self go down.
Sometimes, though, these two terms refer to very different things, and are difficult to define in their own rights. A Traditional Gardnerian or Alexandrian who chooses not to practice spells will call him or herself a Witch, but some people absolutely define a Witch as someone who practices magic.
Many Pagans practice magic, but don’t think of themselves as Witches because they don’t participate in certain rituals or organizational structures such as a coven. Some just don’t want to use the word “Witch” because it has so many problematic connotations, and some use the word “Witch” for that very reason alone, wanting to reclaim it as a title of honor and pay homage to those in the past who have suffered for bearing it as a label.
As a teenager, my best friends and I read tons of Time/Life occult books, and novels like The Mist of Avalon, over and over again. We met on Fridays and danced in darkened rooms until the wee hours of the morning, we performed rites of passage and healing for each other—I can remember sitting in the snow in a white cotton dress and being asked to repeat, “All Gods are one God, and all Goddesses are one Goddess…”—and we cast spells.
We found fairies in my best friends’ garden, and we cast carved sticks to divine the future. We had altars in our rooms with candles representing each of the elements, and incense, and crystals, and representations of the Mother Goddess. Never once did we call ourselves “Witches, ” or even “Pagans.”
We were just doing our thing, as far as we were concerned.
Over a decade later, after a hiatus in college of trying to be a good Episcopalian, mostly to benefit family members and certain boyfriend, little elements of my former calling kept popping into my life. I got invited to a drum circle. Someone took me to a lecture close to Halloween about who/what Witches really are.
The One Spirit catalogue offered a three-volume collection of Scott Cunningham’s work, and I bought it. Imagine my surprise to find that all the things I’d been doing as a kid were part of an established religion! I started researching and reading, I built a new altar for myself, and with a certainty that I’d come home again; I dedicated myself (re-dedicated myself?) to the Goddess and the “Old Ways.”
When I applied to attend Divinity School to receive my Masters, I put “Pagan” as my answer to the “what’s your religious tradition?” question. That decision wasn’t based just on my desire to easily introduce that institution to my religious beliefs and practices, but on a distinction I had started making around that time, and which has become further developed for me since then.
While I definitely felt called to everything even remotely involved with the Craft, had developed a relationship with the Goddess (not so much with the God; that was a later development for me, which I think it is for many transitioning from Christianity) and knew that I wanted to be a Witch, I didn’t feel like I was one, yet. So much work goes into learning and developing the skills of the craft.
It became my increasing perception that a witch is like a shaman, a hands-on spiritual leader who can address problems in this world and others. I wouldn’t just go around calling myself a shaman, so I figured that until I was to a point in my path where I could justify doing so, I wouldn’t go around calling myself a witch, either.
Three years later, I do use the term “Witch, ” in some settings, when I am describing my spiritual path and myself. Not only did I make it all the way through Divinity School as a openly Pagan woman (in the South, no less) but in these last few years I have made huge strides in developing my Craft knowledge, skills, relationships, and in integrating my spiritual life into my daily life, trying to eliminate compartmentalization as much as I can.
I am by no means an advanced practitioner, but now when I have a problem in my life, I turn to the Old Gods and the Old Ways to help me deal with it, and when I have something to celebrate, I do the same. I’ve joined a coven, and I recently find myself voted into the position of Assistant High Priestess (A title that speaks more to my administrative function than to any initiatory level).
And as I strive to become more and more involved in the Pagan community in my area, I’ve noticed that the distinction I made for myself seems to be playing out around me, too.
Not to add yet another hierarchical battle to the perennial trad-eccelctic-fluffy melee, but in my historical research and observation of other religions, it’s impossible to ignore that most religions have some type of priestly caste or sector of the population that ministers to the rest of the population.
Many authors in our community will argue that that’s what sets Wicca/Witchcraft/Paganism apart from those other religions— each individual can act as his/her own priest/ess. And I can see a lot of truth to that, absolutely…it’s just that something a professor of mine once said keeps sticking in my mind, and coloring the way I perceive the community around me.
After giving a presentation on the tools of Witchcraft to a class on material religion in America, and expecting to have to field questions about worship of Satan, etc. etc., my professor said to the class, “I think it’s really important for all scholars of Christian history to be familiar with and pay attention to the Pagan movement in this country. Here you have a very rare opportunity to observe a religion in its early stages evolving into a more widely practiced, socially accepted tradition, and the parallels to early Christianity are undeniable.”
Not only was the comment very validating for me, but it makes me think that as we do grow and evolve into a larger community, and more and more people are called to the Old Ways, the ways of nature, however you refer to them, are all of those people going to want to be shamans, priests, or priestesses?
Do they have less faith in the Gods if they don’t want to lead rituals, do magic, or work with the spirits?
In my observation of the community, I see people like this all the time—they resonate with the Wheel of the Year, the God and the Goddess, pray to them, and live by the Rede, but when they are expected to start becoming their own ministers, they flounder. They flock to drum circles and women’s circles and festivals because they feel like they’re part of something there that they can’t create for themselves.
In ancient times, not every man and woman was a priest or priestess—we have evidence of priestly castes and magical practitioners serving the larger populace from every ancient culture I’ve read about—Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Israelite/Judean, Celtic, Germanic. Those people ministered to others, ritually and magically.
Those are the people we compare ourselves to now, not the general populace who showed up for the major festivals, mostly to drink and dance, and painted protective symbols over the front door because that’s what we’ve always done, better safe than sorry.
Isn’t it reasonable to assume that ancient Pagans who were more focused on farming and hunting and producing goods in order to survive on a daily basis aren’t that dissimilar from those people today who attend services once a week, or even just on major religious holidays, and mostly live their lives without a second thought for the powers that be?
It’s not that those people are somehow inferior to those called to focus on a spiritual path in all aspects of their lives. Almost everyone I’ve ever met has some degree of spiritual longing.
Is there something wrong with the people who turn to someone else to help them meet that need, and don’t need that it met as often?
To get back to my main point, maybe this is the difference between “Witch” and “Pagan, ” at least to my mind. Maybe the “Witch” is the priestly caste of Paganism, and the “Pagan” is the average believer of our tradition. Maybe we’re only now getting to the point of growth of our community that our size is allowing this distinction to occur.
Doesn’t it make sense that, as a new religious tradition develops, the leaders, the spiritually called, would emerge first, but at some point they might attract followers with a little less time and effort to commit? We’ve seen it happen throughout history, in every religious tradition.
I can almost hear the horror echoing through the internet as I post this statement—I mean it definitely has implications for the way this community views and structures itself. We pride ourselves on being hands-on, thinkers, seekers…different.
Well, what if we’re not, just by virtue of being human? What if, eventually, our community falls naturally into a spectrum of people with different types of gifts and different levels of commitment and interest? What if we raise kids who only show up for Sabbats, or hold regular healing circles that people only come to when they feel like they need to? Is that really wrong?
Is that a dilution of what being a “Witch, ” or a “Pagan, ” for that matter, is all about? I don’t know—this way of defining those two terms may be extremely useful, or it may be somehow harmful.
This type of thinking may contribute to that very unattractive holier-than-though attitude I’ve noticed some third degrees have, and that is not something I want to advocate at all.
But it’s possible that it also might allow for an interpretation of our path that allows us to be as extroverted as we are introverted, and offer the Pagan experience to a wider range of people.
Do we call that progress?
Copyright: Copyright Marijean Rue, 2007. Please contact for permission to use.
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
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