Apples and Orangutans: Traditional Witchcraft vs. Wicca

Image courtesy of Shutterstock
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

I read quite a lot about witchcraft.  Just about everything I can find, just about any time I can find it.  I’ve always been fascinated with the Art and the Craft.  One thing I’ve been reading an awful lot recently in the blogosphere is how much better traditional witchcraft is than Wicca.

In general, it seems that many of those who style themselves traditional witches (that I have read; so perhaps I’ve just been unfortunate in the links I have found) make a lot of assumptions about Wicca and then state how they are different and why that makes them superior.  For example, some say that traditional witches are consistent in their worship and that “Wiccans worship their Gods in a typically Wiccan manner with no regard to their original culture or religion.”  I have seen it claimed that Wicca is “fluffy” in its limiting and “illogical” ethical belief in harming none, and that “what you do shall be returned to you threefold.”  Some say that British Traditional Wiccans are “conservative” and that Eclectic or Progressive Wiccans “vary in strictness but are generally more inflexible in almost every aspect of practice than BTW covens” (so I guess they haven’t met the same Eclectic Wiccans that I have; but I digress.)  One even said that British Traditional Witches have no right to say that they are British traditional witches, because the “traditional witches” are the (Real One True) British traditional witches.

These websites have quite a lot of nasty things to say about Gerald Gardner in particular, saying that he founded his religion in order to pursue his “nudist and voyeuristic tendencies” and “female domination fetishes.”  Their many broad generalizations about Wicca and Wiccans make me gnash my teeth in annoyance; which (aside from reasonable irritation with the tendency of a vocal minority of BTW witches who seem to think they have some claim of superiority due to lineage) represent, at best, a fundamental misunderstanding of some central concepts of Wiccan faith; and at worst, deliberate misrepresentation.  I could take each of them to task in a list here with arguments and defensiveness, but that’s really not my point.

In the spirit of trying not to define a spiritual path by what it is not, and trying instead to find out what it is, I made a great effort to research traditional witchcraft.  I have read many of the books that Jason Mankey mentioned in his recent article (despite his objections to my Wikipedia references in my recent article.)  I have been reading website after website in my effort to understand the specifics.  What are the spiritual practices of traditional craft?  What are its elements of faith?  And I learned that as far as I can tell, there are none.

Traditional witchcraft is a folkloric magical practice (never magick with a K, that’s pretentious and would admit some kind of association with Aleister Crowley, who is icky like Gardner) based in European folk traditions and honouring European agricultural and seasonal cycles.  It involves a certain degree of animism and respect for nature, but traditional witches can be of many different faiths.  Often they regard themselves as shamans, animists, pantheists, panentheists, polytheists, and occasionally Christians or even Satanists, as the Horned God is equated frequently with the Devil in folklore.  Those who descend from the work of the Clan of Tubal Cain often incorporate elements of The White Goddess into spiritual practice, as Robert Cochrane did.  Some claim to be (and some are) witches as part of a family tradition.  Its practices are similar to those of folk magic practitioners of other cultures, with a strong grounding in sympathetic magic.

So why are we comparing the two at all?  It seems to me that they are entirely different things, and comparing them isn’t even like comparing apples and oranges; it’s like comparing apples and . . . orangutans.

It’s something that’s beginning to stick in my craw.  This is, it seems to me, just an extension of the “my lineage is bigger/more legitimate/older than your lineage” nonsense.  This sort of argument is a straw man fallacy.  First, the “traditional witch” sets up an effigy of what they believe Wicca to be; then they show why it’s “bad” and tear it down, so that their witchcraft “looks better.”

I suppose that some of this comes from a distressing tendency of some vocal BTW sorts, especially in the online community of the 90s, to claim a “trademark” on the word “witch.”  A valid argument of traditional witches that I do support is in saying that going to Sabbat circles eight times a year does not make you a witch; practicing magic does.  “Witch” is a calling and a job description.  Yes, I agree.  But practicing magic does not require you to have any faith in particular; or even to have a faith at all.

I was doing witchcraft before I even knew that it had a name.  I know some people claim they were taught in a hereditary tradition that goes back to the dawn of ancient history; I’m not claiming that, but I was changing the weather, seeing the future, and burning candles to influence Fate when I was ten.  I was doing kitchen witchery at twelve.  When I was fourteen, I was dealing with ghosts, spirits and the Otherworld in a manner that others would now recognize as hedgewitchery.  So I guess I’ve always been a “traditional witch.”

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens and early twenties that I became a Wiccan.  I met some people through the Society for Creative Anachronism; these were the first other Pagans I knew.  I was told some very negative things about Wicca at first and figured it wasn’t for me.  I thought of myself as a shaman or perhaps a Druid, or maybe a ritual magician.  I don’t think I came around to the idea completely until about the turn of the millennium, when I realized that Wicca was a religion, with a consistent mythology and code of behaviour, and that I believed in this mythology and this code of behaviour.

Traditional witchcraft is not a specific religion, and there is no formal code of behaviour.  Most traditional witches seem very clear on these two points.  Many are clear in their belief that “fluffy Wiccans” limit themselves with the encumbrance of their ethics and their eclectic mythology.  They often see themselves as living on the edge of society, unbound by deities or oaths.

To this I say: fly; be free!  I think this is a perfectly legitimate path and I certainly don’t hold it against you if you choose it!  Traditional witchcraft is in my blood and my bones too.  It is as natural as breathing to one who is called to it.  Folk magic is strong and powerful and often quite beautiful in a raw, organic way.

If you want to say “I practice traditional witchcraft, and we’re often confused with Wiccans but it’s not the same thing;” hey, that’s great, and I have no problems with that whatsoever.  But please stop trying to define my faith for me in order to differentiate your path!  Surely there must be something that defines traditional witchcraft in its own right as a worthy practice, or it would not have such a following.

I am a traditional witch . . . and I am a Wiccan.  The two are not mutually exclusive because they’re not even remotely the same thing.

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