The Differences Between Paganism, Wicca & Witchcraft
It’s common to use these terms interchangeably and therefore incorrectly. Let’s set the record straight!
Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft all mean something different.
To start, you need to know this mildly confusing but totally clarifying set of statements…
All Wiccans are Pagans, but most Pagans are not Wiccan. Some Wiccans and Pagans are Witches but most Witches are not Wiccan or Pagan. Easy to understand? Yes? lol
This may help:
The simplest way to sum up these three terms is this: Paganism is an umbrella term for many non-Abrahamic beliefs. Wicca is a religion. Witchcraft is a non-religious practice or craft.
Wicca is entirely under the Pagan umbrella. Witchcraft has some overlap with Wicca and Paganism. Some European-based forms of Witchcraft do fall under the umbrella, however not all Witchcraft is European-based and therefore exists as its own independent entity outside of Paganism.
Let’s dive deeper for a better understanding of what makes each of these terms unique and different from one another...
Paganism has as many definitions as it does letters in its name. There’s quite a lot of disagreement even within the Pagan community about what the term does, has or should mean.
You can read this Wikipedia article for some historical context of the term Paganism. I won’t get into the etymology or linguistic aspects of the term Pagan or Paganism here, simply because it’s so well covered elsewhere, but it’s worth your time to learn this history and how it’s evolved from credible sources.
For the purpose of learning the differences between Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft, I’ll define Paganism in a way that I think most Pagans agree on.
Paganism is an umbrella term for an assortment of non-Abrahamic, Nature and Earth-centered religions and practices.
Abrahamic religions are monotheistic (though they do have a pantheon of sorts), meaning they recognize only one god. These religions will include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example. Abrahamic religions work with the God of Abraham. The Christian pantheon, for example, includes Jesus, the Twelve Apostles, God, the Holy Spirit, Mary, and Satan. Roman Catholicism is the largest of the three major branches of Christianity. Thus, all Roman Catholics are Christian, but not all Christians are Roman Catholic.
Paganism often covers religions and beliefs that are polytheistic (meaning they worship 1 or more gods outside of the Abrahamic religions), however there is no standard measure for how many deities one has in order to ‘qualify’ as Pagan. Therefore, many Pagans are monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, atheistic, animistic, etc. The unifying factor among nearly all Pagans is a lack of belief in, worship of, or rejection of the Abrahamic God. Paganism encompasses seemingly countless beliefs, practices and traditions and cannot be defined easily using these measures.
It may be easier to understand by looking at the Christianity model, as most are somewhat familiar with it. Christianity is broadly split into three branches: Catholic, Protestant and (Eastern) Orthodox. Within each of these three branches are additional denominations and traditions that all vary, some widely. In the U.S. there are over 200 subsects within Christianity, including Presbyterian, Methodist, Adventist, Baptist, Church of God, Episcopal/Anglican, Pentecostal, Friends (Quaker), Lutheran, Mennonite, Mormon, and more. And within these denominations are additional sub-denominations and so on.
Paganism and the Pagan Umbrella that Pagans often refer to are very similar. A Quaker, for example, would probably not like to be called a Catholic or Methodist, nor would a Catholic appreciate being identified as Pentecostal. For one, these terms would be incorrect and would not accurately describe the individual’s beliefs or practices. Second, it is not the label they have chosen for themselves. By using incorrect labels – weather out of ignorance, laziness or intention- It would be disrespectful to assume all Christian denominations can be used interchangeably and applied generally. It would also be insulting and a form of erasure to the deeply held beliefs of those individuals to be mislabeled.
Similarly, some Pagans may bristle at being lumped into a label that isn’t theirs. Here’s an example of what the Pagan Umbrella looks like. Keep in mind this is not all inclusive.
As you can see from the Pagan umbrella displayed in the previous lesson, there’s no Satanism shown here, and that’s because Satanism is not Pagan. Satan is a Christian deity and therefore part of the Christian pantheon. While many Christians would just as well call Satanists Pagans, and Pagans Satanists, that is because from their perspective, and in the strictest oldest definition of the term Pagan, anyone who doesn’t worship their God, the God of Abraham, is considered Pagan.
Most Pagans have no problem with Satanists and understand they have been maligned and misrepresented by fiction, Hollywood, and the Christian church just as much as Pagans have.
Despite my assertion that Satanists are not Pagan and don’t exist under the Pagan umbrella, there are Satanists who identify as Pagan and there are Pagans who include Satanists under the Pagan umbrella. I’m not the Satanist police and don’t care enough about Satanists to really die on this hill, so you if you do have strong feelings one way or the other about Satanists and Paganism, you can decide for yourself where on the Pagan spectrum you think Satanists belong, if at all.
Now that we’ve explored some of what the Pagan Umbrella looks like, this brings us to Wicca.
As you can see, Wicca is firmly under the Pagan Umbrella. As mentioned before, all Wiccans are Pagan, but not all Pagans are Wiccan.
Wicca is a very recent religion introduced to the public in 1954 by the retired British civil servant Gerald Gardener (1884-1964), often regarded as the Father of Wicca. Popularized in the ‘70s, Wicca is a blend of European Pagan folk traditions with 19th and 20th century hermetic occultism.
Until the 1970’s or so, the only ‘Wiccans’ would have been those initiated formally into a British Traditional Wiccan coven. Wicca wasn’t quite a movement yet and was just gaining in popularity. As it did, self-initiation became an important part of Wicca that eventually became less taboo within the religion. Today self-initiation is generally accepted.
Wicca has no central authority figure. Its traditional core beliefs, principles, and practices were originally outlined in the 1940s and 1950s by Gardner and Doreen Valiente, both in published books and in secret written and oral teachings passed along to their initiates.
Some Wiccan practitioners may identify their path as ‘Witchcraft’ or simply Wicca, or call themselves ‘Witch’ or Wiccan. Some may use these terms interchangeably. A Wiccan Witch and a non-Wiccan Witch may vary wildly in their beliefs, practices and ethics. The trick for Wiccans is to not use their own religious morals to judge other Witches or try to hold them to their religion’s standards. This will not be met favorably. Keep in mind that Witchcraft, as we will cover later, has many different meanings and cultural ties around the world that differ greatly from Wicca. Not all Wiccans identify as Witches, and most Witches are not Wiccan.
There are many variations on the core structure of Wicca, and the religion grows and evolves over time. It is divided into a number of diverse lineages, sects and denominations, referred to as traditions, each with its own organizational structure and level of centralization. Due to its decentralized nature, there is some disagreement over what actually constitutes Wicca. Some traditions, collectively referred to as British Traditional Wicca, strictly follow the initiatory lineage of Gardner and consider the term Wicca to apply only to similar traditions, but not to newer, eclectic traditions.
On a slight tangent… one rather annoying but understandable habit of non-Wiccan people is to call all spiritual people they know ‘Wiccan’. Even within Paganism, this is problematic, as Wiccans sometimes also assume everyone else is Wiccan. While a slip like this is usually innocent, learning to use these terms properly will help you avoid unintentionally offending others and possibly save you some embarrassment and scowls.
Try to remember that no matter how excited you are to be a Wiccan, and no matter how many other Wiccans you’ve met that make it seem Wiccans are literally everywhere, most Pagans, Witches and spiritual people are not Wiccan. Wicca may be more well known in the mainstream than other Pagan religions or traditions, and this may make it seem like most people are Wiccan to an outsider or novice just coming into the Pagan community. However, it is not the chosen religion for most Pagans and you’ll find an easier path forward with more experienced practitioners if you take care to not assume.
Looking closer at Wicca under the Pagan Umbrella, you can see it, too, is its own umbrella with additional branches. Again, this is for demonstration purposes and not meant to list every Wiccan tradition.
Wicca is usually, but not always, duotheistic in beliefs with a God and Goddess, sometimes represented by classical Pagan Gods and Goddesses.
Wiccan celebrations encompass both the cycles of the Moon, known as Esbats and commonly associated with the Goddess, and the cycles of the Sun, seasonally based festivals known as Sabbats and commonly associated with the Horned God. An unattributed statement known as the Wiccan Rede is a popular expression of Wiccan morality, although it is not universally accepted by Wiccans. Wicca often involves the ritual practice of magic, though it is not always necessary.
Somewhat relevant but more lengthy is a discussion on Eclectic Wicca, New Age and the Origins of Wicca. We'll explore these later in this course. For now, let's move on to Witchcraft and how it differs from Paganism and Wicca.
Many different kinds of practitioners use the term ‘Witch’ to describe their path. No one owns the word Witch and nearly every culture has stories and beliefs surrounding Witches.
Witchcraft is not a religion. It is the practice or craft of magic/k or manifesting intent. While not a religion on its own, it can be incorporated as a component to religion if desired based on your personal belief system. Some Pagans and Wiccans choose to incorporate Witchcraft into their religious or spiritual practices, some do not.
Witches do not follow any set of morals or ethical codes except the ones they determine for themselves. If they are religious, they may incorporate some or all of their religion’s moral code into their Witchcraft- or they may not. Some Witches keep their Witchcraft separate from their religious practices. Some Witches are fully Secular or even Atheistic, others may work with Spirits, Ancestors or Deities, and of course there are those who do whatever they want, whenever they want and follow no consistent rules or practices.
Witchcraft is often about working with what you have on hand. Many Witches prefer to work with natural elements, the weather, wild plants and herbs, and some will choose a more modern approach.
Witches may use tools but this will vary from Witch to Witch like everything else. One Witch may use a cast iron cauldron, another may use an electric crock pot. One Witch may use a mortar and pestle, another may prefer an electric coffee grinder. Neither is right or wrong. If it works, that’s what matters. Many Witches today use a combination of tried and true ‘old-fashioned’ tools alongside modern ones. The tools modern Witches use are not prescribed by any authority or community- they will be practical and useful and there will be a need for it. Witchcraft does not incorporate many items that do have a practical function. Practicality is often a high priority, and if something can do double-duty, all the better.
Some Witches may cast circles and spells, many do not. Some may work with poisons, with animals and bones, and some do not.
There is no single grimoire or spell book for Witchcraft. Practices vary from Witch to Witch. Sometimes these practices are handed down from generation to generation in family traditions, such as in Appalachian Folk Magick. Sometimes a Witch learns from Spirits and Ancestors, and sometimes the wisdom and knowledge come from educated sources combined with trial and error.
Generally speaking, Witches heal and curse. There’s a saying, if you can’t curse, you can’t heal. Both are two sides of the same coin. To get rid of an illness you must banish or extinguish the symptoms or root cause, for example. This may require baneful magick. Again, if a Witch also practices a religion, like Wicca, for example, they may restrict their magick to align with their tenant of ‘Harm None’. As it is strictly Wiccan, most Pagans and Witches so not believe in the Threefold Law and therefore it is not at all part of their moral or ethical structure.
Witch is a term that can describe any gender. It is not just for women. If a man is a Witch, he is not a warlock, he is also a Witch. Warlock means ‘oathbreaker’. It is an insult and anyone who attempts to use this term or reclaim it is not taken very seriously in the Witchcraft or Pagan communities.
The terms Witchcraft and Witch derive from Old English denoting someone who practices sorcery as a skilled craft or ‘Craft of the Wise’. Mention of Witches and Witchcraft (in various languages) date back through all of recorded history- thousands of years. Stories of Witches pre-date Christ by hundreds if not over a thousand years.
Before modern times, however, and even in some places today, a Witch did not usually describe themselves as such.
Today, many have embraced the public use of the label Witch in an effort to reclaim it, to be subversive and as an act of rebellion. Unfortunately, there will always be those who use it to get a reaction, to follow a fad, to seem cool or different or to play pretend with things they do not understand. The word itself comes with its own history and consequences. Without the wisdom and maturity to carry the label well, the consequences may be more than you are ready to handle. For those who respect and understand the responsibilities and privileges of claiming this label for themselves, Power follows.
Roughly equivalent words in other European languages—such as sorcellerie (French), Hexerei (German), stregoneria (Italian), and brujería (Spanish)—have different connotations, and none precisely translates another. The difficulty is even greater with the relevant words in African, Asian, and other languages.
The problem of defining Witchcraft is made more difficult because the concepts underlying these words also change according to time and place, sometimes radically.
Different cultures do not share a coherent pattern of Witchcraft beliefs, which often blend other concepts such as magic, sorcery, religion, folklore, theology, technology, and diabolism. Some societies regard a witch as a person with inherent supernatural powers, but in the West Witchcraft has been more commonly believed to be an ordinary person’s free choice to learn and practice magic with the help of the supernatural. (The terms West and Western here refer to European societies themselves and to post-Columbian societies influenced by European concepts.)
False ideas about Witchcraft persist today. What you think Witches are may not be an accurate representation. The emphasis on the Witch in art, literature, theater, and film has little to do with reality.
Take-Aways Here are the main takeaways:
Paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft aren’t interchangeable terms, as the mainstream has led many to believe.
Wicca and all of its subsets are Pagan, but not all Pagans are Wiccan.
Many Pagans, including Wiccans, choose to practice witchcraft but not all do.
Finally, people completely removed from Paganism can practice Witchcraft.
Paganism, Wicca & Witchcraft: Part 2 'Eclectic Wicca v/s New Age Wicca'
A large number of Wiccans do not exclusively follow any single tradition or even are initiated. These eclectic Wiccans each create their own syncretic spiritual paths by adopting and reinventing the beliefs and rituals of a variety of religious traditions connected to Wicca and broader Paganism.
While the origins of modern Wiccan practice lie in covenantal activity of select few initiates in established lineages, eclectic Wiccans are more often than not solitary practitioners uninitiated in any tradition. A widening public appetite, especially in the United States, made traditional initiation unable to satisfy demand for involvement in Wicca. Since the 1970s, larger, more informal, often publicly advertised camps and workshops began to take place. This less formal but more accessible form of Wicca proved successful. Eclectic Wicca is the most popular variety of Wicca in America and eclectics now significantly outnumber lineaged Wiccans.
Eclectic Wicca is not necessarily the complete abandonment of tradition. Eclectic practitioners may follow their own individual ideas and ritual practices, while still drawing on one or more religious or philosophical paths. Eclectic approaches to Wicca often draw on Earth religion and ancient Egyptian, Greek, Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Asian, Jewish, and Polynesian traditions.
New Age Wicca
In contrast to the British Traditional Wiccans and Reclaiming Wiccans, the sociologist Douglas Ezzy argued that there existed a "Popularized Witchcraft" that was "driven primarily by consumerist marketing and is represented by movies, television shows, commercial magazines, and consumer goods". Books and magazines in this vein were targeted largely at young girls and included spells for attracting or repelling boyfriends, money spells, and home protection spells. He termed this "New Age Witchcraft", and compared individuals involved in this to the participants in the New Age.
It can also be said with some certainty I think that outside of Traditional British Wicca, Modern American Wicca is largely rebranded New Age beliefs, which in its modern form is itself to some degree rebranded Christianity + Wicca. As a result, today’s American Wiccan practices are often steeped in Christian values alongside remnants of older occult and Pagan values.
What is New Age?
The New Age movement as it’s known spread through the occult and metaphysical religious communities in the 1970s and ʾ80s. It looked forward to a “New Age” of love and light and offered a promise of personal transformation and healing in the coming era.