Wiccan, Witch, Pagan – What’s the Difference?

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(This article is an excerpt from “The Wiccan Mystic.”)

What Is Wicca?

Current historical research suggests that Wicca is a modern Pagan religion first promoted by Gerald Gardner around the 1950s. Wiccan beliefs are structured on the practices of witchcraft as outlined by Gardner. Modern scholars such as Ronald Hutton, in his detailed and highly influential book “The Triumph of the Moon,” suggest that Wicca did not exist as an actual religion prior to Gardner, and that “uncle Gerald,” as he is affectionately known, is largely responsible for its creation. There were certainly people who practiced magick and even some who called themselves Witches prior to Gardner, but the system Gardner presented as the religion of English witchcraft does not seem to have existed before Gardner appeared on the scene. Regardless whether Wicca has been around for fifty or five thousand years it is a living religion that has increasing numbers of adherents around the world. Some say it is one of the fastest-growing religions today.

It is important to remember that there are non-Wiccan witches as well; not all draw from the work of Gerald Gardner and his system. Wicca, while a very visible segment, is also just one part of the larger Pagan community.

Pagan, Witch, Wiccan: What’s The Difference?

There are many debates within the modern Pagan community over the correct use of the terms Pagan, Witch, and Wiccan. The community is so diverse that it is unlikely there will ever be a final agreement on this matter. Despite that, there are some more or less valid generalizations within the occult community today regarding the use of these terms.

witchcraft (with a lowercase w): the craft or art (or to some, science) of magick. It can involve spells, divination, herbalism, brewing potions, and working to explore and use so-called psychic skills. Some who practice magick in this fashion refer to themselves as kitchen or hedge witches. This use of magick can be incorporated in a religious framework but doesn’t necessarily have to be. Spells don’t have to involve invoking deity although for many they do.

Witchcraft (with a capital W): the use of magick inextricably entwined with the worship of a deity or deities. Most Wiccans consider themselves to be religious Witches, but not all Witches are necessarily Wiccans; not all Witches base their philosophy on Gerald Gardner’s system. People who consider Witchcraft to be their religion almost always capitalize the word to indicate its use as the name of a religion rather than a craft. They also often capitalize the word Witch to indicate a religious title, as the words Christian, Jew, and Muslim are capitalized out of respect for followers of those religious paths.

Wicca: a religious system very likely started but in any case promoted by Gerald Gardner, or any religious system based on or derived from the Gardnerian system. Wicca is probably the largest Witchcraft subgroup today. (Note: some Wiccans today say they are not Witches or witches — if that’s the case, then perhaps they should not consider themselves to be Wiccan. Gerald Gardner was very clear that he was promoting Wicca as a religion, or “the religion,” of witchcraft.)

Pagan: an umbrella term that is usually meant to include any religion that is not part of the big mainstream patriarchal monotheistic faiths. Some groups, like various aboriginal faiths, Hindus, Astatruar, Buddhists, etc. would probably say they aren’t Pagan, while others would say they are. Commonly the term Pagan is used to refer to European and Western faiths like Wicca, Druidism, Greek reconstructionism, Egyptian reconstructionism, and any faith that is not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Pagans might or might not practice magick or consider themselves to be witches, Witches, or Wiccans.

A few examples might illustrate the distinctions more clearly.

People who practice the craft of witchcraft self-identify their religion as pretty much anything they want — Christian, Jewish, a Pagan faith, atheist, agnostic. To some witches their religion is separate from their use of magick. To make things a bit more confusing there is not really a standard about whether the word witch should be capitalized or not. Some always capitalize it whether they use it to refer to a religious witch or a craft witch, some don’t. Some capitalize it to indicate the word’s use as a title but this is not always the case.

People who identify their religion as Witchcraft self-identify their magick and worship of a deity or deities as being so intertwined that they aren’t separate at all. They can be Christian, Jewish, Pagan, etc. just like craft witches. That means that yes, there could be and indeed are Satanic Witches. There isn’t much other Pagans or Witches can do about that whether they like it or not. No one group has exclusive ownership of the terms witch or witchcraft and therefore none are justified in trying to deny others the right to use these terms.

People who call themselves Wiccans, if they are really based on Gardnerian root-stock as I think they must be if they are to call themselves Wiccans, are Pagans. With that understanding, then, the term “Christian Wiccan” or “Satanic Wiccan” is an oxymoron; it’s like saying you’re a “Christian Muslim” or a “Jewish Christian.” However, it’s not a problem for Wiccans to choose to focus on Celtic, or Norse, or Egyptian, or even Christian or Jewish mythology so long as they are essentially polytheistic whether they believe all gods are one god or see all deities as truly distinct. It is important to keep in mind as well that while Wiccans might focus on Egyptian mythology, for example, that does not mean they are following an Egyptian religion. Similarly, Wiccans who draw on Christian myth are not Christians.

People who self-identify as Pagans might or might not practice magick, so they might or might not consider themselves witches or Witches, Wiccans, or something else. But while a Pagan might draw from Christian, Jewish, or Muslim mythology they aren’t “Christian Pagans” or “Jewish Pagans” or “Muslim Pagans.” The Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths are avowedly monotheistic and explicitly insist that you can’t be Christian, Jewish, or Muslim if you hold yourself to be Pagan. Paganism is more inclusive – the exclusivity is on the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim side of the equation, not the Pagan side. Being such a vague term, though, Pagan usually includes all sorts of groups including Asatruar, Celtic reconstructionists, Greek reconstructionists, Kemetic faithful, etc. They just have to not be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim in their base religion to be considered Pagan.

Personally, I consider myself a Witch because my magick is very much a part of my religion, and a Wiccan because I base my religion on Gardnerian ideas and structures although I’m not an initiated Gardnerian. And as a Wiccan, I’m a Pagan.