Do we call it Pagan, neo-Pagan, Witchcraft, Wicca or some other label? Is ‘Witchcraft” the religion or is it something else? If we look at the origins of the word and how it was originally used, then yes, Witchcraft is a religion. But it’s important to look at the origins as well as the meaning of the words as they were initially used to begin this discussion. But it’s also important to look at how these words have evolved throughout time and what they have become to mean.
Words like people evolve in their meaning and in their use. When a religion such as modern paganism has evolved so much through the centuries, does it really make sense to hold onto old labels like “Witchcraft”? Some say no. Others say that was never the name for our religion to begin with. It was heaped onto believes by the early Christian Church and demeans our beliefs and practices.
So how do modern practitioners of paganism define the name for their religion? For that we have to start at the beginning and discuss the meaning, origin and evolution of some of the words and labels that are used within our religion. This maybe tedious stuff, but it’s important to know where you came from in order to understand where you’re going.
c.1200, from Anglo-Fr., religiun, “religious community,” from L. religionem (nom. religio) “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods,”. Modern sense of “recognition of, obedience to, and worship of a higher, unseen power” is from 1535. “Religious” is first recorded c.1225. Transferred sense of “scrupulous, exact” is recorded from 1599.
1. A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2. A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.
When we say religion we are talking about a group of people who have organized a fundamental set of common spiritual beliefs as the foundation for their religious practice. By this definition “Witchcraft”, “Pagan Metaphysics”, “Neo-Paganism” all labels that are attributed to the religion are indeed a religion. These core beliefs set the foundation of a “religion” and the practices that implement them can be called a denomination or tradition of practice.
c.1375, from L.L. paganus “pagan,” in classical L. “villager, rustic, civilian,” from pagus “rural district,” originally “district limited by markers,” thus related to pangere “to fix, fasten”.
Religious sense is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history. And it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for “civilian, incompetent soldier,” which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (e.g. milites “soldier of Christ,” etc.). Applied to modern pantheist and nature-worshipers from 1908. Paganism itself is attested from 1433.
While pagan is attested in English from the 14th century, there is no evidence that the term paganism was in use in English before the 17th century. The OED instances Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) who states: “The divisions of Christianity suspended the ruin of paganism.” The term was not a neologism, however, as paganismus was already used by Augustine.
By modern definition: any religion that does not espouse to the doctrine of Abrahamic religions is pagan and therefore practices paganism. Abrahamic doctrine would include Judaism, Christianity and Islamic faiths. This becomes a huge category of religions however.
Neopaganism: A movement by modern people to revive nature-worshiping, pre-Christian religions, or other nature-based spiritual paths. This definition may include anything on a sliding scale from Reconstructionist at one end to non-reconstructionist groups such as neo-Druidism, Witchcraft and neo-Norse movements.
When we say neo-Pagan we are talking about pagan groups that define themselves as nature or Earth based religions. Today however, many practitioners prefer calling their practices “Nature” based instead of “Earth” based. The idea here is to include all creations of Nature within the entire Universe (or Multi-verse).
O.E. cræft “power, strength, might,” from P.Gmc. *krab-/*kraf-. Sense shifted to “skill, art” (via a notion of “mental power”), which led to the n. meaning of “trade.” Use for “small boat” is first recorded 1671, probably from some nautical sense of “vessels of small craft,” referring either to the trade they did or the seamanship they required.
Use of the word in modern contexts: another name for Witchcraft.
When we say Craft, we are talking about the practice of an art or skill that is applied to the Science of Energy Manipulation; also called Magik.
OE – a wise woman, shaman, or priestess in Germanic paganism, later in Norse paganism, and are a recurring motif in Norse mythology.
Derived from PGmc – The Old Norse word Völva meaning “wand carrier” and it continues Proto-Germanic *walwo-n, which is derived from a word for “wand” (ON völr). Vala, on the other hand, it is a literary form based on Völva. Other names were seiðkona for women and seiðmaðr for men.
When we say Wicce, we are speaking of a woman who utilizes her knowledge and skills of Energy Manipulation to provide guidance to those who seek her guidance.
An O.E. noun meaning “male witch, wizard, soothsayer, sorcerer, magician;” the male form of wicce.
Use of the word in modern contexts traces to English folklorist Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), who is said to have joined a 1939 occult group in New Forest, Hampshire, England, for which he claimed an unbroken tradition to medieval times. Gardner seems to have first used it in print in 1954, in his book “Witchcraft Today”. Gerald Gardner’s followers (c.1954) established the tradition of Wica as a form of Witchcraft. In later years, one of Gardner’s students assumed he spelt the word incorrectly Wica instead of the ‘old world’ spelling of Wicca and that he chose this word because of its ‘masculine association for a male witch’. Today his tradition is known as Wicca.
When we say Wicca today, we are talking about the modern tradition of Wicca established by Gerald Gardner.
OE – wiccecraft. The practice and beliefs held by the Wicce. A magical religion or the religion of the Wicce.
Witchcraft was first declared a crime in Eng. law in 1542; trials there peaked in 1580s and 1640s but fell sharply after 1660. The last, in 1717, ended in acquittal. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736. Earlier documented use of the word occurs c1480 in OE papers documenting the negative influences of the Wicce and her efforts to consort with the devil. Some believe this to be the precursor or beginning movement against craft practices and the start of the Inquisitions of Europe.
When we say Witchcraft/Wiccecraft, we are talking about a religion that holds a common set of Nature based fundamental beliefs and practices. These beliefs include a deep desire to live in harmony and balance with ones natural world (seen and unseen), a respect for all things, reincarnation and karma, the belief that all things are connected on both a physical and spiritual/soul level through energy and the God/Goddesses or Divine, and that this energy can be utilized to advance the soul toward spiritual enlightenment. This certainly isn’t a complete list of all the beliefs of the religion, but is offered as a general synopsis.
c.1380, from O.Fr. tradicion (1292), from L. traditionem (nom. traditio) “delivery, surrender, a handing down,” from traditus, form of tradere “deliver, hand over”. The notion in the modern sense of the word is of things “handed down” from generation to generation.
Traditional is recorded from c.1600; in ref. to jazz, from 1950. Slang trad, short for trad(itional jazz) is recorded from 1956; its general use for “traditional” is recorded from 1963.
1. a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting.
2. a continuing pattern of culture beliefs or practices.
a. (among Jews) body of laws and doctrines, or any one of them, held to have been received from Moses and originally handed down orally from generation to generation.
b. (among Christians) a body of teachings, or any one of them, held to have been delivered by Christ and His apostles but not originally committed to writing.
c. (among neo-Pagans) a body of teachings, or any one of them, held to have been received from family/clan/cultural group ancestors and originally handed down orally from generation to generation.
When we speak of Tradition in the neo-pagan community we are speaking of a specific group that implements the beliefs held by the religion of “Witchcraft” and further defines those beliefs and puts them into practiced by a specific set of activities held in troth to that group. In other words, a Tradition of Witchcraft further defines the beliefs and puts those beliefs into practice based on their own troth, creed or rede of faith.
c.1384 from O.Fr. magique “art of influencing events and producing marvels”; from L. magice “sorcery, magic”; from Gk. magike female form of magikos “magical,” from magos “one of the members of the learned and priestly class”.
Practitioners of “Witchcraft” adopted the Greek spelling “magike” and later “magik” to differentiate between stage magic and the science of energy manipulation. The practiced faded and was repopularized in the first half of the 20th century by Aleister Crowley when he introduced it as a core component of Thelema.
1. The science of energy manipulation. A conscious direction of will to accomplish a goal.
2. An action or effort undertaken because of a personal need to effect change through energy, spells or ritual.
3. Any act designed to cause intentional change. To change nothing into something and something into something else. To cause in any object any change of which that object is capable by nature.
When we speak of Magik we are talking about the science of energy manipulation through ritual, ceremony or spell as a conscious direction of will to accomplish a goal.
O.E. wicce “female magician, sorceress,” in later use “a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts.”
Use of the word in modern context refers to any person, female or male, who practices the science of energy manipulation/magik. It has been associated primarily with the religion of :Witchcraft”, but the label is used amongst other practitioners in other religions, including Christianity, especially Christians from northern Spain, Latin America and various Celtic regions.
When we speak of witch we are talking about any person who practices magik along with their own personal spiritual belief, be it Witchcraft, Christian, or some other form of religious practice. Those that do not practice magik with or on a spiritual path are not witches, but rather Ceremonial Mages. The label “witch” distinguishes a person who practices magik with religion, vs. one who only practices magik.
What’s Behind A Name?
When we say pagan we are talking about the ‘rural adherence to the old gods’, meaning religions that do not follow the doctrine of Abrahamic religions. This would include a large category of religions from ancient Buddhism to Shamanism and what we call modern Paganism. Which can get confusing as many think of Paganism as a specific type of pagan practice and not the Buddhist, Hindu or Shamanistic faiths.
By the same token, many think of Voodoun as pagan and that’s not accurate either. Voodoun is a combination of Haitian/African practices merged with Christianity.
All this confusion is one reason modern “Craft” Pagans are becoming more interested in finding a new label for the overall religion. But even in that, there’s controversy. “Witchcraft” is frowned upon today because of the negative connotation of the word through history. Some argue that Witchcraft is a practice and not a religion at all. So many modern Craft Pagans are looking for a better label to describe the religion.
A popular label in the U.S. is Wicca. Wicca as it is used today is a modern denomination of that religion. It’s important to understand that Wicca in its original form was not a religion unto itself, nor was it intended to be. Those who claim Wicca is the older base of the religion are not accurate in their assumption. That does not diminish the value or stature of Wicca. But it does a disservice to other traditions that came before it. As well as other traditions that are practiced outside the U.S.
There have been many Traditional practices of “Witchcraft” that have been handed down among families and cultures long before these words and labels were established. The earliest we can go back in time is to the Late Latin period of the 3rd century AD and the use of paganus by the scholars of that time. Even then we know from the writings of Caesar’s Commentarii de bello Gallico (52–51 BC; The Gallic War) that there were pagan practices in place in the Celtic lands. Not all of these were Druid. The Druids attempted to unite pagan clans in order to fight the invasion of the Romans. But many of these Celtic Shamanistic regional clans refused to give up their names, practices and beliefs even though many of them were nearly identical or very similar. Consequently the attempt to unite these regions failed. And so did the attempts to stop the Romans.
We certainly know the Norse practiced earlier forms of Norse Shamanism that evolved into Odinism, Ásatrú and neo-Pagan traditions. We also know these early forms of Norse paganism influenced other regions of the world as the Vikings traveled, conquered and settled in new lands. That is certainly true of their invasion and influence in the Celtic lands. We know the Druids and Celtic Shamanistic clans were in place long before the Wicce and Wiccecraft labels were used in old English.
We also know that Native American pagan practices in North, Central and South America existed long before Indo-Europeans invaded those lands, bringing Christianity to the ‘new world’. These forms of Shamanism are also the pre-cursors to modern neo-paganism.
Additionally we know Asian cultures held similar perspectives and even today have their own versions of Craft practitioners. Some of the spiritual approaches we in the pagan community utilize today are influenced by these perspectives. This is also true with concepts contributed from practitioners of Hindu. Our word “karma” is based on concepts from Hinduism and Buddhism.
Modern attempts to suggest that Wicca is the original religion doesn’t take into account these earlier practices of the faith from around the world and their contributions to the evolution of modern “Witchcraft” beliefs. Thus suggesting the old religions were therefore “Wicce” or “Wicca” is short sighted. Calling these early traditions “wiccan” degrades the contributions these early people made to our belief systems today.
Taking all this into account, modern practices cannot be labeled or generalized as ‘Wicca’. The historical evolution of the words, and their associated practices pre-date Wicca as a practice or tradition. Because of this, we cannot say Wicca is the religion. Rather it is a denomination or what we call a Tradition of the religion.
The Evolution Of Names And Faith
In or about 1100AD those of nature paganism were labeled as Wiccecraft and later Witchcraft practitioners as the title for their religious beliefs. But these labels were somewhat imposed on practitioners by the early Christian Church. Over time this label for the religion has degraded the practices and have been used to condemn practitioners during the European Inquisitions.
Even though the attempt to suppress these early pagan beliefs did not succeed, the effort forced survivors into hiding. Doing so caused community practitioners to developed their own variations of doctrine and ways of implementing those beliefs based on their own oral traditions and cultural perspectives. This further splintered these early pagan practices which continued to survive and thrive in some cultures.
The eventual secrecy that blanketed the early pagans created a climate of lost knowledge and information. Even before the Inquisitions we know a large amount of information and documentation was lost as conquerors destroyed villages and cultures as they took over the lands and the people they invaded. But much was lost because many of these lessons were passed on through oral traditions that were forgotten or simply slowly died out.
Evolution also occurred because the more human culture learned from science and scientific exploration, the more our understanding of the universe and our place in it also evolved. We no longer see the Earth as the center of the Universe, or the human being as the “master” of all things. These narrow concepts no longer fit into the world as we know it today. The need or value in sacrificing a life as an appeasement to or in honoring our Gods/Goddesses have thankfully been replaced with respecting life. Today we see greater value in caring for life and nature. Because we have grown as a species, our religious values have also grown. Which means, we have set aside many old views and made way for greater understandings.
Today what we know as Paganism accepts science discoveries and applies those understandings to our beliefs. We have reached a point in our knowledge that sees modern science as a valuable tool that is slowly confirming many of the spiritual insights we have held through centuries of practice and understanding. These old labels of Witchcraft and neo-Paganism do not fit our modern views any longer.
Through all this, there is one constant – the underlying metaphysical concepts of the belief system.Keep in mind that Physics is the study of the observed world. Where as Metaphysics is the study of the unseen world. Both are valued and both are needed and applied to modern pagan belief systems. Because of this, one label becoming popular to name the religion is Pagan Metaphysics. It’s a label that honors the past, yet recognizes the growth and evolution of the religion through history. While still honoring all the traditions equally in value and importance from around the world.
In this approach, the religion sets the foundation of belief and the Traditions further define and implement those beliefs into their own perspectives of practice. Defining their own creed, troth or rede of faith to provide guidance and principles for that tradition. Wicca is a tradition of Pagan Metaphysics equal to Celtic Shamanistic traditions and a large number of other Traditions that existed before and after the creation of Wicca.
The change in name may also help to get away from some of the centuries of negative propaganda heaped on the practice from the early Church and the use or implementation of the label “Witchcraft”. Along with escaping the modern media presentation of the evil witch or the concepts that anything associated with Witchcraft is inherently negative or of the Devil.
What ever you choose to call your religion is up to you. I like the ideas that the label Pagan Metaphysics provides, but my perspectives are not shared by everyone. And you should never claim a label for your own practices that you don’t feel connected to. Do your own academic research behind the name you feel drawn to, study its etymology and gain a good understanding of the label you’re choosing to connect with. You’ll not only learn something, but you’ll also find a greater connection to your own chosen path.
- Online Etymology Dictionary
- Covenant Of The Goddess
- Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary
- WordNet® 3.0, © 2006 by Princeton University
© 2012 Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. Springwolf Reflections / Springs Haven, LLC. All Rights Reserved.