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Pagans, Witches, and Wiccans

There are a lot of definitions floating around for these terms. Some (including many dictionary definitions) are not very up-to-date. Others reflect a particular agenda or are a little too eccentric to mesh with common usage. This is my own take on the terminology.

Paganism is often defined in dictionaries as any religion other than Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. This seems to me overly broad and rather anachronistic. It makes its categorization on the basis of a cultural bias centered on the western monotheisms, rather than on any objective appraisal of the characteristics of different religions. It seems downright odd to describe a Zen Buddhist or a religious humanist as a Pagan. On the other hand, it would be to narrow to define Paganism in terms of any particular ancient or modern tradition, such as Wicca or classical Greek religion. I prefer to think of the term paganism (without capitalization) are identifying a particular approach to religion, parallel to such terms as mysticism or fundamentalism. Religious traditions in which the pagan approach dominates may be collectively identified as Pagan (with capitalization).

What is this "pagan approach" to being religious? Here, in no particular order, are some important characteristics of paganism in my understanding. These are not absolute requirements, but instead are just a cluster of features often found together.

  • Paganism is nature-conscious. By this I do not mean the ideology of modern environmentalism (although many modern Pagans do espouse that ideology). I mean that the pagan way of being religious sees the divine as intimately connected with the natural environment: the cycle of the seasons, the Earth, Moon, and Sun, plant and animal life, and elements of the inanimate environment as well, such as water and fire. Paganism thus reflects a religious sensibility natural to people who depend on the nature for their survival and happiness. In Pagan religions, the world of nature provides (at the very least) a rich resource of religious symbolism, or the divine may be viewed as being fully embodied in nature. Pagan religious celebrations tend to cluster around natural events (solstices, equinoxes, full moons, etc.) rather than commemorating historical events.
  • Paganism sees the divine as immanent and particular rather than transcendent and abstract. Although Pagan thinking may sometimes consider a grand, all-encompassing unity behind the spiritual and material world, such conceptions tend to be tentative and secondary to more concrete experiences of the divine here and now - in a sacred place, a plant or animal, or an aspect of nature (including human nature). By emphasizing the presence of the divine in the concrete and particular realities of life, pagan theology tends to be polytheistic. The Earth, the eagle, the forest, the human capacity for love or creativity . . . each may have its own deity and be separately and distinctively revered. Consequently, paganism is inclined to revel in the diversity of experience, rather than endeavoring to find a single abstract pattern behind it all.
  • Paganism is life-affirming. This is almost an inevitable consequence of the first two characteristics. Paganism is inimical to theologies that view life in this world as evil, miserable, or illusory. Paganism celebrates the natural cycle of life: birth, reproduction, and death. Paganism does not view life as an ordeal that must be endured to achieve some higher state of bliss after death. This affirmation of life often takes the form of positive attitudes toward sexuality and aging, and (especially in modern Paganism) an honoring of women and their creative powers, both biological and spiritual.
  • Paganism is mythopoetic. By this I mean that paganism tends to express the sacred through stories, symbols, and images, often used in ways that are more psychological than literal. The activation of the religious imagination that occurs through myth and symbol is more critical to pagan religious practice than is assent to a creed or acknowledgment of any particular authority, whether scripture, institution, or individual religious leader.
  • Paganism places high value on folkways, including various forms of practical magic. Often viewed by adherents of other religions as superstitions or "old wives' tales", folkways (including herb lore, divination, magical rhymes, household rituals, and the like) are appreciated in most pagan traditions as expressions of ancient wisdom and cultural continuity.

Some religious traditions that clearly fall under the Pagan category are the pre-Christian religions of Europe and the Mediterranean (the religion of the ancient Greeks being the best documented), many Native American religions, and many of the indigenous religions of Sub-Saharan Africa. In the east, Hinduism exhibits many characteristics of Paganism, as does Shinto. In most places, Buddhism also incorporates many local pagan elements, as does Catholicism in the west. In many religions, some pagan practices coexist with an official nonpagan theology.

I have taken care to describe paganism in a way that encompasses both its ancient and modern forms, while still keeping it distinct from essentially nonpagan religions and world views like Christianity of scientific atheism. But it is important to recognize that modern Paganism has distinctive qualities that separate it from its pre-Christian antecedents. Neopaganism (as the modern forms are usually known) is best thought of as a deliberate, conscious endeavor to establish a religion for modern people that is consistent with the pagan way of being religious, and draws inspiration (to a greater or lesser degree) from ancient Pagan religions and practices. This is partly a matter of simple necessity; not enough information has come down to us from pre-Christian Europe to allow us to practice an ancient Pagan religion exactly as was done in the past, even if we wanted to. But it is also a matter of choice: some ancient practices (animal sacrifice, for example) are just not consistent with modern sensibilities. Furthermore, Neopaganism is informed by a broad knowledge of religious ideas and practices from many different places and times, which was not available to our ancestors. Neopaganism lives in a culture which is typically more democratic and tolerant than in ancient times. Neopaganism is also strongly infused with the values of modern feminism. Although it is probably fair to regard the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion as generally more patriarchal and misogynistic than the beliefs it supplanted, there is little evidence for a matrifocal "golden age" in ancient paganism, in which society was ordered according to modern feminist values.

The extent to which Neopaganism can claim historical continuity with its ancient predecessors is a subject of controversy in Neopagan circles. Although the debate is interesting (and occasionally serves to shed some light on the past), it is not terribly important to how Neopagans practice their religions or the meaning it has for them. Unlike Christianity, the legitimacy of Neopaganism is not felt to not depend on the historical accuracy of its origin myth.

This leads us to the subject of Wicca. Wicca is the most popular and influential Neopagan religion. It was created by the Englishman Gerald Gardner and his circle of friends in the early 20th century. Gardner presented Wicca as a Pagan witchcraft religion that had been handed down intact from medieval times. Modern scholars discredit this claim, but the degree to which Wicca is derived from ancient sources, rather than 20th-century invention, remains controversial in the Wiccan community. I think Wicca is best understood as an outgrowth of the ceremonial magic tradition (practiced by Roscicrucians, Masons, and other occult societies), modified to respect a Pagan metaphysical sensibility rather than the Judeo-Christian mysticism that characterizes much of ceremonial magic. Wicca draws its conception of the Pagan mythos chiefly from works such as Robert Graves's The White Goddess, James Frazer's Golden Bough, and Margaret Murray's God of the Witches, none of which are regarded today as accurate reflections of the beliefs and practices of ancient European Paganism. Wicca draws much inspiration from pre-Christian Celtic culture, but again very little is actually known about the ancient religion of the Celts. Wicca revives the ancient Celtic holidays of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasad, and Samhain, combining them with observances of the solstices and equinoxes to make an eightfold Wheel of the Year of seasonal celebrations.

In recent decades, this creative blend of ceremonial magic, 19th-century romanticism, and Celtic custom has enjoyed a synergistic relationship with feminism and the women's spirituality movement. Wicca is a goddess-focused religion, and this has made it attractive to those exploring alternatives to patriarchal theology and culture. Wicca is non-hierarchical; there is no denominational headquarters or bureaucracy; each coven is autonomous. Consequently, there is no official control over the use of the name "Wicca", and disagreements do arise about how the term should be used. Wicca, as originally conceived and practiced, is a mystery religion. One becomes a Wiccan not by endorsing a creed or paying membership dues, but by experiencing a sequence of progressive initiations under the direction of other Wiccans. Therefore there is some contention regarding the status of people who perhaps read a book or website about Wicca, decide they like it, and then identify themselves as Wiccans. Although it seems to me that the published material on Wicca and related topics is now so copious that one who pursues a solitary practice of "book Wicca" is certainly following a legitimate religious path, I do recognize the need to preserve some distinction of terminology between these "self-initiates" (who may often be just dabblers) and those who practice Wicca as an iniation-based mystery religion. Thus I tend to use the word myself in the narrower sense, although I hear it often used more broadly, and that doesn't bother me.

It should be noted that Wicca is not the only Neopagan religion. Other prominent Neopagan religions include Druidry and Asatru (revivals of Celtic and Norse religion, respectively). Modern renditions of Native American religions and shamanism also come under the Neopagan umbrella. There are also many "nondenominational" Neopagans, who engage nature-focused spirituality using whatever ideas and practices they find to work for them. Some elements of Wicca, like casting a circle to perform magic or ritual, or celebrating the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, are so widely used and appreciated that they have become a sort of common language for Neopagans of many different persuasions.

The word witch is an especially difficult one for many people. Although, in the distant past, it was a rather neutral Anglo-Saxon word for a user of magic, during the time of the witch hunts in the late Renaissance, it acquired its familiar meaning of a woman with evil magical powers, presumed to be in league with the Devil. It was Margaret Murray who promoted the idea that those persecuted for witchcraft were actually practicing some form of Pagan goddess-worship that had survived the Chrisitian middle ages as an underground cult. Although this interpretation of the witchcraft persecutions has been discredited, it remains an important component of how Wiccans (and some other Neopagans) view their religious history. And the truth itself is subtle. For what constituted "witchcraft" in the middle ages may not have been a full-blown goddess religion, but it certainly did involve magical folkways with their roots in Pagan times; such folkways were frequently the province of women, who were the chief victims of the witch trials. Even though most of those executed were victims of false accusation, it is still fair to see the witch hunts as representative of the Christian church's demonization and persecution of early Paganism and its later vestigial remnants. So there is some potent logic in seeing the "Burning Times" as symbolic of the violent misogyny and anger directed against anyone perceived as a threat to patriarchal religious authority.We still live in a society dominated by partriarchal preconceptions about spiritual and personal power, and so this is a living issue for all those seeking to reclaim a place for the feminine in religious thought and practice. Claiming the label "witch" is thus a stark challenge to an ensonced network of prejudices that remains a real obstacle to the practice of pagan spirituality in all its form. The use of the pentacle by Wiccans and some other Neopagans also has this socio-political dimension.

Are all Neopagans to be considered witches, then? I see this as a matter of personal choice. The word has many connotations, and Neopagans eventually decide for themselves whether the term fits or not. For example, most think of witches as skilled in practical magic, and so the term may feel inappropriate for a Neopagan whose practice is mostly contemplative or celebratory, rather than magical. Or a Neopagan whose point of reference is a cultural tradition far removed from European witchcraft (for example, the Sumerian mythos or a Native American path) may find the term jarring. Conversely, there are witches who do not consider themselves Pagan at all, viewing Pagan as a religious category, and regarding their use of magic as purely practical, without religious overtones.

Finally, it should be recognized that terminology often shifts to suit the audience. Someone who happily describes herself as a witch among fellow witches may prefer "Pagan", "goddess worshipper", or something similar among people who are likely to misunderstand, be shocked, or react negatively to the idea of witchcraft. Although many share the goal of eventually reclaiming a positive meaning for the word "witch" in society at large, it is clear that that day is a long way off, and common sense often dictates a gentler approach to acquainting people with the pagan approach to religion.

Copyright © 2001-2008 Tom Waters