If you are searching for a spirituality that works for you, it can be difficult to figure out the difference between a witch, a wiccan, and a pagan, which seem like similar things. Even if you don’t feel the need to specifically identify yourself as anything, it can be difficult to figure out what to tell other people when they ask about what you are or what you do. Are these religions? Can you still call yourself one of them if you don’t like the idea of religion?

We hope to help you navigate this territory by explaining the history and context of these identifying names and discussing how they might be relevant to you in your life. 

What is a Wiccan?

Wicca itself seems to have a confusing history. Various Pagans in the Britain of the 60’s uses the term to cover the entirety of Pagan Witchcraft. Wicca was also a specific religion created in the 1950’s by Gerald Gardner after traveling in Asia, reading broadly, and allegedly being inspired by local British witches. He and his high priestess Doreen Valiente established covens and promoted what to this day is still called Gardnerian Wicca. 

Several other occultists ran with it and created their own brands of Wicca. You may come across the Dianic Wiccans, the Feri Tradition, the Reclaiming tradition, the Minoan Brotherhood, among others. It also appears that the word “Wicca” seems to have been adopted by a lot of the Pagan Witchcraft followers during the 60’s, after Gardner made known the old English Term “Wicce,” or “wise one” — the source of the word “witch.”

The term Wiccan has evolved into a general catch-all term used by people who want to identify with a nature-based religion that other people might have heard of and to be more specific than just “pagan.” Technically all Wiccans are Pagans, but not all Pagans are Wiccan. There is a lot of argument, especially from within the various traditions what a “Wiccan” is if one does not associate with a particular tradition. The most reasonable definition seams to be something along the line of “someone who follows an earth-based religion that derives from before Christianity and has certain rituals and practices.”

The term has become eclectic enough that it’s hard to tell who it applies to. There are Wiccans who would not call themselves witches, as well as those who use the term mainly because saying “earth based spirituality” is too complicated. Others who are witches call themselves Wiccans even though it does not have any added meaning to them, and there are also witches who do not call themselves Wiccan.

So what’s an earth-based-spiritual-person to do? 

What is a Pagan?

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the definition of a pagan is:

old fashioned + often offensive : a person who is not religious or whose religion is not Judaism, Islam, or especially Christianity : HEATHEN

The word comes from the Latin word meaning “rural,” which lends it the slightly less insulting  version of meaning whatever religion was in a geographical area before Christianity obliterated it or forced it underground. 

Of course these definitions completely disregard any of the other religions of the world that are not “major” and don’t take into account the significant history of animism in eastern religions or any of the native indigenous religions of the Americas. And, to be fair, there are many instances of cultures dismissing their own more rural ways of practicing and worshipping as “uncultured” or “unlearned.”

According to the Pagan Federation International, a pagan is “A follower of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.” It takes a more holistic view and adds that “Paganism is the ancestral religion of the whole of humanity,” which recognizes and does not exclude current incarnations of this ancestral endeavor.

Pagans may follow a specific pantheon native to their area or culture, or worship many deities in a more animist method. Many view the many gods and goddesses as aspect of one God or Goddess, or of one non-dualistic Spirit. 

Regardless of the specificities of deity worship, most pagans view nature not as something subject to our will and domination but as a living manifestation of the divine principle. We are here to coexist with nature, not control it; more precisely, we are not separate from it at all. From this arises the many forms of divination and aspects of shamanism common to many cultures.

The difference between a Wiccan and a modern Pagan is fairly subtle yet distinct. Wiccans generally believe in Divinity in the form of the God and Goddess, largely derived from British & Celtic belief systems. Someone identifying as a Pagan more likely has a different Pantheon or cultural focus that is important to them. There are also many pagans who work with various pantheons; you’re more likely to hear the term “Eclectic Pagan” than you are “Eclectic Wiccan.” 

Most modern Wiccans and Pagans have some interest in magic and divination, though not necessarily a focus on creating spells, which is what would land them in the witch category. There are many pagans who are into the cultural aspects of their tradition and have no interest in the types of things attributed to modern witchcraft. 

What is a Witch?

A witch, traditionally, was a “wise person” — someone who knew how to heal people, birth babies, makI e predictions.” They weren’t always welcome, and were sometimes feared, even through they were always needed. While there were male witches, witches were often female. Being knowledgeable, female, and feared tended to be a really bad combination. 

Males into the occult often didn’t fare well either. Magic and science started out being close to the same thing, as the court astrologers were the ones who predicted the movements of the spheres and delved into the secret knowledge of humanity. This was a tricky mix, and it was easy to run afoul of the Church—or just make the wrong prediction and piss someone off.

Regardless, the witch has always lived on the fringes of society. Unlike the shaman, who in traditional societies had a valued role in the community, witches were often shunned or were forced to fly (pardon the pun) under the radar. Part of this was due to the fact that Western culture did not really value women and their knowledge, and viewed highly magical women’s work such as healing people with food and keeping them safe with knitted, woven, or stitched talismans as below notice. 

Coming back to the modern day — many people identify as a witch for several reasons. Some are hugely attracted to the idea of casting spells or doing magic. Others view it as a political act, or an homage to the generations of wise women and men who tended the fires of our hearths and our hearts throughout all of humanity. Many people, conversely, avoid the word witch because they don’t believe in spellwork or don’t want to engage with anything they feel is politically charged.

A more precise definition of a witch though could best be “someone who does magic,” meaning someone who through intent, knowledge, and action, aims to exert their will on the world. If you look at the self-help section of the past twenty years, it’s fairly indistinguishable from magic: identify what you want, create an intention, make a plan, act. The whole business around the Law of Attraction has brought this type of effort into the mainstream but has also created a lot of confusion and argument over the matter.

A modern witch more likely gets a little more esoteric than just “believing in magic.” Likely they delve into occult correspondences, divination techniques, and systematized knowledge of things like herbs and astrology. There are so many books and specialties out there that it’s easy to feel like you’re not a witch unless you know a lot of stuff and own a gazillion books.

Ultimately, your spirituality is your business, as it what you call yourself. Worst comes to worst, if you can’t find a convenient label, you can usually shut anyone up by launching into a joyously geeky rant about all of this stuff and make them never ask you again. Personally, that’s our advice.

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