Wicca and Witchcraft: Which Is Witch and What’s What?

Updated on September 5, 2017
WiccanSage profile image

A Wiccan of 25 years, Sage likes to put her background as a writer and teacher to use by helping people learn about this NeoPagan path.

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.

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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 1980’s rock band.

Historic Definition of Witchcraft

Source

The Historical Witch

In the 1800’s 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

Gerald Gardner's Book of Shadows
Gerald Gardner's Book of Shadows | Source

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 1940’s, 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

Wicca:
A modern Pagan fertility religion that may include the practice of Witchcraft
Witchcraft:
A skill or practice that can be combined with any (or no) religion.

References

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


Image Credits:

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

Comments

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    • profile image

      Monica Orosco 

      4 weeks ago

      Thank you for all the information. There is so many things to learn.

    • profile image

      Paula L Jordan 

      5 weeks ago

      I use to practice,now I am coming back into the fold as having been out of cirulation since 1988.

      I am excited as I can be to be back.

    • Selene du Ciel profile image

      Skye 

      2 months ago from Tri-states area of NY-NJ-PA

      I'm reading more often that some Wiccans do not consider themselves witches. That surprised me, but be that what it may. I distinguish the two in the most basic way for introduction as Wicca is a religion and Witchcraft is a practice.

      For those interested in Wicca, I suggest that memorize the Wiccan Rede (preferably the long one or at least keep the full-length Rede in their BOS).

      As you pointed out, for many of us who solitary eclectic witches, there's a lot of us who use large portions of Wicca, but other practices as well, and we don't consider ourselves part of a religion.

      Then I include your article because it is an excellent look at the dynamics affecting both.

      Giving everyone as much information as possible about both allows them to choose their path and knowledge that the path may change within paganism. It's the beauty of it all! And the circle turns.

      Blessed Be in the coming New Year!

    • profile image

      Fayleen 

      4 months ago

      I agree the harm to none is the key.

    • profile image

      Rusty Rupp 

      5 months ago

      I believe that one doesn't have to practice witchcraft to belong to the Wiccian religion, but if they do they should live by the rede to harm no one.

    • profile image

      Russell 

      6 months ago

      That's what I like about this religion it gives you a choice on how to you want to practice it without judgement from others.

    • profile image

      william carter 

      7 months ago

      Hi it's nice to have you around. I have met many witches. Some I question myself as to them being real. The two that I have met, one does almost everything for money. The other has told me she would be very happy explaining things to me that I was having trouble with. Now don't get me wrong. We all need money to survive. But if I was a high priest and this was something you wanted to learn. I would be more than happy to teach you. Something like keeping the flame alive. Bless you and be safe.

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      7 months ago

      Thanks Lydia; I appreciate your comment. Blessings on your path (hope you like that word better? lol).

    • LydiaOye profile image

      Lydia Lewis Oye 

      7 months ago from Seale

      Greetings Sage,

      I am very new in the religion ( I don't like that word). I have had an interest since I was a child. My grandmother would tell me stories of witches and witchcraft. Just recently, I decided to learn and delve more into the lifestyle. So far I am being well educated by your articles. Thanks for sharing and guiding.

      Blessings,

      Lydia

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      12 months ago from London England

      ON LINE AGAIN.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      12 months ago from London England

      Shall see what happens now !

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      12 months ago from London England

      I've been informed by the leader of an 'esoteric group' that the controllers of the web don't want children accessing certain topics. Understandable, but at least i can log in whenever i am 'outa town'.

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      12 months ago

      Hi Ian; I'm sorry to hear that. There's really nothing I can do, this isn't my website. I just enjoy using HubPages as a publishing platform. I have no idea why that might be, but thanks for letting me know!

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      12 months ago from London England

      I can only access this web page on sites outside of my city as it keeps being unavailable through misconnection.

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      13 months ago

      Hi M;

      I didn't say there were no old religions, or that ancient religions didn't worship Goddesses. Of course there were, it's historical fact.

      I said around the 1900s, into the 20th century, a lot of religions were starting to spring up and were calling themselves 'the Old Religion', claiming an ancient lineage. Wicca was one of them.

      Those claims of have been debunked, that these modern religions have unbroken lines back to ancient religions.

      That doesn't mean ancient religions didn't exist; it only that any evidence that they went underground, survived in secret for centuries, and emerged in the 19th/20th century as modern Paganism is simply not true.

    • profile image

      13 months ago

      I am very willing to accept the truth of what you are saying if it were true...I have to ask you though; you must be familiar with ancient goddess worship. The first known objects considered art are female fertility goddesses and there is little doubt that these are prehistoric but clearly defined objects. For you to say there is no ”old” religion is just wrong. It is not what Wicca is based on specifically I’ll agree if you want to say that, but there is little doubt in the field of art history that there was an ancient goddess cult. Why you want to disavow it isn’t clear to me. I haven’t read enough yet, but I was very interested in what you had to say until I read this section. It’s disappointingly dogmatic.

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      14 months ago

      Thanks Bob... could have just said I had a typo, I would have believed you without the links.

    • profile image

      Bob 

      14 months ago

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      Ishbel's town house gallery had a basement which was euphamisticly known as 'the dungeon'. To be entered at your own peril.

    • profile image

      craig twelvie 

      2 years ago

      this is very helpful I just starting learning about 2 hours ago and I really want someone to teach me. It is very hard to self teach but this is making it kind of easier. I am 14 and I hope to be able to cast spells and know as much as possible in a year and one day so I can be more spiritual and be able to use my abilities to the fullest.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      merrie we meet merrie we meet merrie we meet

      Many blessings to all kindred spirits.

      Yours in light

      the Limpet

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      You're welcome Sage. It's the least I can do.

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      3 years ago

      Thank you Kristen, I'm glad you found it interesting. Thanks for commenting and voting!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      This was an interesting read on Wicca and witchcraft. I've heard about Wicca a decade ago. Voted up for interesting!

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      4 years ago

      Hi Lantokey... you are so intriguing. Always nice to hear from you.

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      4 years ago

      Thanks for your comments, Limpet. Synchronicity is a great force, isn't it? Be blessed.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      4 years ago from London England

      merrie we meet

      seek and ye shall find!

      'synchronicity' is also a great help on the rare occasions that it occurs

      bless

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      4 years ago

      Thanks so much limpet; appreciate the comments. You sound like you had great guidance, which is something a lot of people struggle to find.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      4 years ago from London England

      merry we meet

      Wyche an olde English word meaning bendy or pliant

      bless

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      4 years ago from London England

      merry we meet

      The introduction to wicca for me was from a High Priestess and my learning from books borrowed from the esoteric section of libraries.

      Ishbel the name that She practised the craft under taught me 'karma is the key' and light relief from evil. Her town house gallery was filled with Egyptian artifacts.

      Bless

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      4 years ago

      LOL thanks Bishop! I appreciate your comment.

    • Bishop55 profile image

      Rebecca 

      4 years ago from USA

      I'm witchy, but not Wiccan. I loved the title of this, it made me giggle.

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      5 years ago

      Liz, thanks so much, I am so happy that you've found my hub useful. There are a lot of overlaps and a lot of erroneous history claims going around that has muddied the waters. While I don't think everyone will ever all agree on Wicca or Witchcraft, we'll always have varying opinions on spiritual matters (and that's good, we grow as we learn from each other); but we do need to strive for clarity. I appreciate your comments!

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 

      5 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Sage, I read one of your recent hubs the other day and decided I would start from your first and make my way up the list. Whew! My brain is full. But I love your writing and the clear, concise way you explain each subject.

      We tend to make many assumptions regarding the relationship between Wicca and Witchcraft. You've stripped away the black hats and cauldrons, revealing a serious lesson that is rich with history. Thanks for sharing your knowledge--I'm learning so much!

    • WiccanSage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      5 years ago

      Thanks Shai, I appreciate your comments!

    • shai77 profile image

      Chen 

      5 years ago

      Great hub. Never knew there was a difference; learned a lot. Thanks for explaining it. Voted up!

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