Wicca and Witchcraft: Which Is Witch and What’s What?
Confusion About Wiccan and Witch
If you’ve browsed around on message boards or read books about Wicca and Witchcraft, you’ve probably come across some of the following contradicting claims:
- “Wicca: The modern form of Witchcraft introduced to the general public in the 1950s by the late Dr. Gerald Brousseau Gardner.”1
- “All Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccans.”2
- “Not all Wiccans are Witches, and not all Witches are Wiccans…. Practitioners of magick are Witches, but just because you’re Wiccan doesn’t make you a Witch. Wicca is just the religion, the faith, and the beliefs. Not all of them practice spellwork and it is most certainly not required.”3
So… which is it? Wiccan and Witch are synonymous? Wicca is a type of Witch, but only one type? Wicca and Witchcraft are not the same thing after all?
There seems to be a great deal of confusion on how Wicca and Witchcraft are related—if at all. To really sort out the truth, we have to look to the past, both distant and recent.
This article gets lengthy as to accurately answer this question. It's necessary to look to the past and follow a train of thought. If you’re anxious for a short and sweet explanation, please scroll down to the last section below entitled, The Real Relationship Between Wicca and Witchcraft.
If, however, you are more interested in how the conclusions in that section were drawn, I invite you along to ride this train of thought with me.
Poll - Tell Me...
what's you're opinion?
Evaluating Entomology of Witch and Wicca
Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, notes that the origins of the word 'Witch' are unclear, but most likely does indeed come from the Old English word wicca in 890, which referred to a male practicing witchcraft4. About 100 years later came the feminine counterpart, wicce. It is believed that the "cc" pronunciation was "tch," which would give us a word sounding more like 'witch-ah" than the modern pronunciation 'wick-ah.'
The Online Etymology Dictionary agrees with Liberman’s definition of wicca and wicce under the entry for ‘witch,’but additionally notes the modern use of the word under the entry for ‘Wicca.’5 According to Etymonline.com, the modern use of Wicca is from Wicca's founder, Gerald Gardner.
Gardner claims the word Wicca was given to him by the coven of Witches who initiated him (more on that later), but it was first published in his book, Witchcraft Today. His religion was not called Wicca, though. Gardner referred to the religion as Witchcraft or the Witch-cult. Gardner spelled it ‘wica’ with one ‘c’ and called all practitioners of Witchcraft (male and female) ‘the Wica.’ He also changed the meaning of the words; originally, witchcraft was associated with malevolent magic, but Gardner describes 'the Wica' as generally good, wise people working with herbs and occult knowledge.
It’s important to note that Gardner’s use of the word (whether he came up with it himself, or got it from one of his sources) is not the historic use of the word, but a romanticized reinvention that arose out of the Neo-Pagan and occult movements. Just because the words were related over a thousand years ago does not mean the modern definitions existed for 1,000 years. That would be like saying when medieval literature spoke of the iron maiden, they were referring to the 1980s rock band.
Historic Definition of Witchcraft
The Historical Witch
In the 1800s until the mid-20th century, many works arose that claimed Witchcraft to be “The Old Religion.” Most notable were the works of Margaret Murray in the early 20th century, who presented the first works claiming to have evidence to support the rumors over the last century or so that witchcraft (and the witches persecuted during ‘The Burning Times’) were remnants of an old Pagan religion that has gone underground to escape persecution by Christians.
For a time Murray’s theories were widely accepted—particularly among those involved with the thriving occult movement, the growing Pagan revival and the budding feminist movement. However, within a few decades her worked was debunked by any serious historian.
Professor Ronald Hutton—noted English historian and himself raised a Pagan— has put forth the most well-researched, comprehensive, credible arguments exposing the gaping holes in any of the ‘Old Religion’ theories in his book Triumph of the Moon. Hutton sums up his point about modern Witchcraft or Wicca’s connection to the ancient use of the word in an interview with Neocropolis Now:
“The English word ‘witch’ has always been the equivalent in this language of those used across the world, in many different tongues, for somebody who uses magic to hurt other people. A fear of this sort of person has existed across most of the inhabited world and in all times (though not among all peoples), and given rise in many places to mass persecutions of suspects. The trials of suspected evil magicians held by the ancient Roman republic, long before the birth of Christianity, produced rates of execution surpassing any in the early modern witch persecutions. Witchcraft was not a religion, nor the remnants of one, but a way of blaming somebody else for uncanny misfortune. If witchcraft were the same thing as a pagan religion it would not have been persecuted within pagan societies – in fact they would not have even noticed it, because it simply would have been part of their religion. Between 1400 and 1800 Western Christianity did, however, add something new to the image of witchcraft in that, uniquely, it reclassified it as a rival religion, serving the Christian devil.” 7
Hutton points out repeatedly in his book, there simply is no evidence of ancient underground witch-cults, or that witchcraft was ever practiced as a religion before the 20th century.
Magic and Witchcraft
People have always practiced magic; often within a religious context, but they worshiped their indigenous Gods. They practiced whatever the religion happened to exist in that place and time. They were extremely culturally and religiously diverse.
It’s not that magic practitioners didn’t exist; it’s that they would not have called themselves Witches, and they were not a unified religion of any type.
When talking about the term ‘Witch’ a lot of people in recent decades have used the word ‘reclaiming’. But how can you reclaim something that never existed in the first place (an ancient Pagan religion of Witches)? A more accurate way of putting it is that we’ve ‘claimed’ the title of Witch in the 20th century. While we have a right to do that, we don't have a right to make false claims about the word's history.
Witch was simply not a positive label. Even those who practiced magic would have taken it as an insult to be called a Witch. While many modern Witches attempt to reconstruct and reinvent various Pagan practices, these systems just never existed in the past as a religion of Witches.
Book of Shadows
Does It Mean Wicca and Witchcraft Aren't Real?
For some people, whether they consider themselves Wiccans, Witches, or both, these revelations are like a bucket of cold water. “Does that mean my religion never existed?”
I would answer to those people, “No; it means your religion is probably not more than 100 years old, though.” Wicca and Witchcraft certainly borrow from many older, rich spiritual sources. But we must not pretend it means we practice an ancient religion, or we face losing all credibility and respect.
Whether Wicca is 7,500 years old, or 75 years old, or even 7 years old is irrelevant. Every religion was new at some point. Whether Witchcraft was a religion in the past is, likewise, neither here nor there. The idea that only the practice of Witchcraft by ancient cultures gives validity to modern Witchcraft is about as strong an argument as saying ancient Christians believing the book of Genesis gives validity to the modern ‘scientific’ claims of Creationism.
A large enough group of people identify as Wiccans and/or Witches today that it’s enough to suffice: they are real; they exist. The fact that we share many similar experiences and personal revelations, and that so many of us find meaning and satisfaction in these practices is enough to validate them. We don’t need to grab desperately at straws from the past, we need only look to the rich and thriving world-wide community we’ve created in the last century to confirm any fears or doubts.
Wicca’s Early Days
When Gerald Gardner developed Wicca in the 1940s, the Witch-cult theories had still not seriously been challenged. It’s hard to know if Gardner really believed he had been initiated into a Witch coven in 1939 that had survived since at least the Middle Ages—or if he just really wanted to believe it. He certainly wanted others to believe it.
Frerederic Lamond, an original member of Gardner’s coven, relays his memories of those early days:
“After cakes and wine he used to tell us stories about what happened in ‘Pre-Burning Times’.
At the time, I was rather cynical about these stories and thought to myself: ‘Good old boy! He is trying so hard to persuade us that there is a continuous tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages if not the Stone Age, whereas we all know that this is utterly unprovable, and that even today’s family traditions might not go back further than the occult revival of the 1890’s’” 8.
While many practicing Witches at the time did believe (or, again, perhaps wanted desperately to believe) that they were practicing an ancient religion, many were dubious of these ancient claims. They were aware that the alleged evidence was sketchy at best.
I personally don’t believe Gardner’s motives were sinister. Regardless of the history, he sincerely believed in the validity of the religion and wanted to give it to the world. Gardner never denied his hand in shaping his religion. He admitted:
“the rituals he received from Old Dorothy's coven were very fragmentary, and in order to make them workable, he had to supplement them with other material.” 9
Gardner himself was obviously enchanted by the romanticized ideas of Paganism and Witchcraft, given his own history of esoteric studies. He probably felt a great deal of pressure to justify this religion to those who would practice it, or question it. Lamond speculated about Gardner’s motives to push the “Old Religion” theories :
“Gerald Gardner was also a man of his times, and all esoteric movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries were still influenced by the Christian belief that all truth is inherited from the past. The Freemasons, arcane knowledge to Hiram, the architect of Solomon’s temple, whereas speculative Freemasonry first arose in 16th century Scotland. Rene Guenon, the French esoterist, saw himself as a “Priest in the order of Melchisedek.” And the founders of the Order of the Golden Dawn claimed they had been given a charter to do so from a German Rosicrucian initiate -- Fraulein Sprengel. No wonder Gerald or the New Forest coven felt they had to portray the witchcraft revival movement as in a long line of initiations.” 10
This belief in the “Old Religion” was probably most reinforced, however, in the late 20th century with the explosion of interest in Wicca by the mainstream. A number of new books about Wicca came on the scene, reinforcing the “Old Religion” theories, long after they had well been disputed by mainstream historians. Unfortunately, they quoted each other’s misconceptions and misinformation so often that it just kept reinforcing the myths and the ‘fakelore’ until it became accepted in the Pagan community at large. The newer generations of Wiccans saw no reason to question it.
The problems were exacerbated by the growth of the solitary movement. It’s not that there is anything wrong with being a solitary Wiccan, but rather than training in covens, more and more Wiccans were self-studies. Not everyone took the responsibility seriously enough.
As put by Medieval historian and Wiccan, Jenny Gibbons:
“We Neopagans now face a crisis. As new data appeared, historians altered their theories to account for it. We have not. Therefore an enormous gap has opened between the academic and the "average" Pagan view of witchcraft. We continue to use of out-dated and poor writers, like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, Gerald Gardner, and Jules Michelet. We avoid the somewhat dull academic texts that present solid research, preferring sensational writers who play to our emotions. For example, I have never seen a copy of Brian Levack's The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe in a Pagan bookstore. Yet half the stores I visit carry Anne Llewellyn Barstow's Witchcraze, a deeply flawed book which has been ignored or reviled by most scholarly historians.” 11
Few people bothered to question the claims put forth by pop-authors and greedy publishers who seemed eager to slap the Wiccan label on just about any New Age, occult, spiritual, myth or esoteric practice they could dig up. Now, in the 21st century, we are long past due for abandoning the mistaken ideas about the origins of our religions.
The Real Relationship Between Wicca and Witchcraft
In determining the relationship between Witch and Wicca, we now have two eye-opening premises to consider:
1) Neither Wicca nor Witchcraft were historical Pagan religions.
2) The very concept of “Witch” that the Wiccan religion was built on never existed.
Given these facts, I think we, as a community, have to come to terms with the realization that Wicca and Witchcraft are not—and never were—the same thing.
Modern Witchcraft refers to mainly a skill—the practice of various forms of magic. It is a skill that many adopt as part of their spirituality. Wiccans (or followers of Gardner’s Witch-cult religion) just don’t get to define it for everyone. There are Witches of just about every (and no) religion: Pagan Witches, Christian Witches, Jewish Witches, atheist Witches, and yes, even Satanic Witches.
Of course, there are Wiccan Witches—people who practice the religion of Wicca, as well as modern Witchcraft. They can still go hand in hand, particularly with traditional branches of Wicca.
As Gardner’s religion has taken off, it’s no longer restricted to the inner-court teachings of the British Traditional Witches/Wiccans (BTW). Eclectic Wicca, based on outer-court teachings, have grown to surpass in number the original, initiatory branch of BTW. Many people find it a valid and fulfilling religious path, without identifying as a Witch at all. Since the historical claims of Wicca lying in an ancient Witch-cult have been pretty much debunked by any credible sources, many modern Wiccans feel free to divorce themselves from the practice of Witchcraft (be it in the older, or the modern, sense of the word).
I think it’s clear now:
- A Witch may or may not follow the Wiccan religion.
- A Wiccan may or may not practice Witchcraft.
When it comes down to it, Witchcraft and Wicca are a lot like peanut butter and jelly: they are great together. They complement each other, even. But they can be enjoyed completely independent of each other as well.
We should not use the terms interchangeably anymore, and no longer should assumptions be made that imply they are inseparable.
How I Define Them
A modern Pagan fertility religion that may include the practice of Witchcraft
A skill or practice that can be combined with any (or no) religion.
1. Raymond Buckland; Wicca For One: The Path Of Solitary Witchcraft; 2004; p.244
2. Patti Wigington; "What's the difference between Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft?"; About.com
3. Court Pellin; "The Truth about Wicca"; hipstermonk.com (no longer exists)
4. Anatoly Liberman; "The Oxford Etymologist goes Trick-or-Treating, or, A Short and Inconclusive History of the Word Witch"; Oxford University Press Blog; 2007
5. Witch/Wicca; Online Etymology Dictionary
6. Ronald Hutton; Triumph of the Moon; 1999; p. 194
7. Ronald Hutton; "Interview with Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, United Kingdom"; Necropolis Now; Interview posted May, 2011
8. Frederic Lamond; 50 Years of Wicca; 2004;p. 14
9. Julia Phillips, "History of Wicca in England: 1939 - present day." Lecture at the Wiccan Conference in Canberra, 1991
10. Frederic Lamond; 50 Years of Wicca; 2004;p. 12
11. Jenny Gibbons; “Studying the Great European Witch Hunt”; The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies #5; Summer, 1998
Attributed images here are used under Creative Commons licensing and can be found at Wikimedia Commons.
Unattributed photos are the authors own work, or in Public Domain and can be found at Pixabay.
© 2013 Mackenzie Sage Wright