Often I hear, “You’re a witch! So you’re Wiccan…” This is only the beginning. This is how they relate the two. Words such as witch, warlock, heathen, spells, ritual and even, yes, Pagan and Wicca have different meanings than what’s taught. First off, before I even get into that, I’m going to jump back to “warlock.” No, men practicing Witchcraft are not warlocks, they are witches, just like women. The English version of a Scottish word, Warlock, on the other hand, means oath breaker. This is something few Pagans would want to be associated with or called.
Now that I got that one out of the way, let’s get back to Pagan and Wicca. Yes, it is true, all Wiccans are Pagan however it is not true in reverse. Picture the word Paganism as a tree with many branches. Each branch is a different path or a Pagan system. For instance, Wicca, Druidism, Norse, Kermetic, Slavic, Strega or just plain Witchcraft. A comparable example of this is Christianity’ word tree. There are Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and the list goes on, more than 3,900 times just in the United States. They are all similar in their beliefs in ways. Explaining this to muggles (to borrow a Harry Potter term) in ways they can relate to and understand, makes sense.
Then there is the word “Pagan” itself. Originally it referred to the non-citizen, country folk of Rome. Not a bad reference as the Pagans of those days fed Rome. But it was still somewhat derogatory because Roman citizens considered themselves better than the common folk.
Why do the Associated Press and Chicago Manual of Style still insist on making Pagan lowercase? These are the standards by which journalists and most colleges work in. They would never do that with Christianity or Judaism.
In 2013, there was a petition to correct this on change.org. That petition did not get very far. As of 2022, the 55th edition of the AP Stylebook the only religious reference we have is Wiccan and Wicca. It states: Wicca is a religion shaped by pagan beliefs. Not only is that spelled with a lowercase “p,” but they seem to be mixing up Wicca with Paganism. The next line: The term encompasses a wide range of traditions, generally organized around seasonal festivals, and can include ritual magic […]. While this is true of that path it just seems to me that they are defining Paganism.
If the term pagan is being used in the country folk sense, then the lower case “p” is correct. However, when it’s talking about a belief system, it is horribly wrong. Maybe it’s time to restart that petition on change.org to get them to catch up with the times.
Next, I’m going to break down this ‘taboo’ word “ritual.” For the longest time I would tip toe around this word. Someone I know refused to call our seasonal gatherings rituals. I followed suit until I decided it made no sense to me. A ritual is something that we do on a regular basis. Brushing your teeth every day is a ritual. Checking your mirrors before you start the car is a ritual. Yes, these are minor rituals. The worship service I attend every Sunday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, New Jersey is a ritual. Celebrating Memorial Day or July Fourth or Labor Day are rituals. Graduations, weddings, birthdays and memorial services are all rituals as well.
Thus, there is nothing wrong or scary with calling a Yule gathering a ritual. We all gather around an altar, table or fire and say certain words, call the quarters or elements. Usually cakes and ale are held: symbolically during or literally afterwards — yet another ritual within or without the greater one.
Some Pagans never want to be called a witch because Hollywood has made it sound and look so evil. Very few television shows like “Bewitched,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “Charmed” show good witches. While “Bewitched” and “Sabrina” brought witchcraft into a better light only shows like “Charmed” and movies “The Craft” and “Practical Magic” were honest with including the repercussions. However, the fake hocus pocus is prominent in all these. Some people still see that ugly green witch from “Wizard of Oz” when they hear the word “witch.” During the European and Salem Witch Trials, many who were identified as witches were beaten and tortured. This ugly green image came from those awful incarcerations, examinations and tortures. People somehow forgot about Glinda, the good witch.
These misconceptions about us are harmful. Most of the words I listed initially often trigger a knee jerk; usually a negative reaction. Many Pagans remain hiding in the broom closet due to ignorance, misconceptions or ridicule about these terms. Parents and friends not following the same beliefs often use these words in negative ways, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously.
Nonetheless, we can reshape our colloquial vocabulary, reclaim “witch” as the gays have reclaimed the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer.’ We can, and should, correct others’ verbal faux pas. Call them out for using “witch” instead of the “b” word; explain “pagan” equals countryfolk. Point out that heathen used to mean non-Christian but now refers to those who follow the Norse path. Remind them that like catholic with a lower case “C” means universal, pagan means those tied to the earth. But Paganism is every bit as much a religious belief system as any other they can name. It deserves equal respect.
These are only a few of the misconceptions that many people believe are right. We can easily prove them wrong. However, we can’t just shrug it off when someone says something negative. Teach them gently, but don’t just sit back.