In my twenty-one years of Paganism I’ve used three different words to describe myself: Wiccan, Witch, and Pagan. Out of the three I like Witch the most these days, but it has its shortcomings. My love for all three words has waxed and waned over the years, so I thought it might be fun to take a look at how I thought of each word twenty years ago and how I look at them today.
Then: Oh those first two years or so as a Witch! The magic! The energy! The excitement! The candles! The loneliness! I was a snot-nosed 21 year old kid suddenly a part of the Old Religion worshipping the Old Gods! What a revelation!
Sometimes when I become friends with a new Witch I’m struck by just how passionate they are about it. Finding Witchcraft is for most of us a very life changing thing, and when you find something that changes your life, you want to yell about it from the top of a mountain. I know I did. Through the word witch I connected with the millions who were executed during the Burning Times, and with a power greater than myself. With a few spells books what couldn’t I accomplish?
My first two years as a Pagan I identified most strongly with the word Witch. It was the perfect word for my rather solitary existence. It would be two years before I really met another Pagan, much less conducted ritual with anyone else. During those early years I felt as if all the secrets of the occult world were just inches away, and all I had to do is just study Uncle Bucky’s Big Blue Book just a little bit more to unlock them. I also liked being the one Witch amongst my group of friends, it made me feel like a special snowflake.
Now: Maybe you can go home again . . . Today it’s the word Witch that resonates most strongly with me. I meet with a coven, honor the sabbats, and can trace my lineage to the first public Witch of the Modern Era (that would be Gerald Gardner). If that doesn’t make me a Witch I don’t know what does. But the word can also be contentious too, and while it’s the word that burns strongest inside of me I don’t always use it in public.
Witch has several different definitions, and for some the connotations of the word will always be negative. And then there are the folks who think that only they deserve to be called Witches. “You practice Wicca, not Witchcraft” I’ve heard on a couple of occasions. Gardner’s books were called Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft. His interpretation is not the only Witchcraft, but it is one Witchcraft. Sometimes I just want to avoid the argument so I avoid the word.
The word Witch does other things too. My lineage may not stretch backwards in an unbroken chain into the Middle Ages, but I do feel a kinship with the other magic users who came before. Cunning-folk didn’t self-identify as Witches, but we share some similarities, they are extended-family in a way. Around the world people who practice magic are labeled as witches, and when they practice that magic in a beneficial way they are a part of the extended network. Seriously, anyone who would kill or harm a witch I’ve got a hex and a middle finger waiting for you.
Witch is also a provocative word, and implies a person on the margins of society. I do a pretty good job walking through mundania but there will always be a part of me more drawn to the shadows and the unknown. If my interests lie on society’s margins, then that’s where I want to be.
Then: Wicca and Witchcraft are synonyms right? All Witches are also Wiccans? OK, maybe that’s not the case, maybe witchcraft is just the practice of magic, and is something completely separate from Wicca? Yeah, that’s it. There’s no magic in Wicca, it’s just religion, and witchcraft (note the little w) has no deities . . . .I used Wiccan to describe myself for quite awhile. Some of it was just because I thought it was a less loaded word than Witch. I’ve seen a few Satanic Witches running around, I’ve never seen any self-described Satanic Wiccans (of course, I might not be looking hard enough). I thought Wicca was the way to win the game of respectability politics.
Now: I still kind of like the words Wicca and Wiccan. Using them certainly cuts down on the amount of time needed to explain what I believe and “I’m a Wiccan-Witch” goes a long way in most Pagan conversations. But all that aside, it’s not one I use very often. I my mind I’m a Witch first, a Wiccan or Pagan very second.
I do often think of myself as “one of the Wica” (note the one c), which is how Gardner originally used and spelled the word. Anyone can be a Wiccan, only an initiate can be of the Wica. I’ve always thought that was a good alternative to the “you can’t be a Wiccan unless you’ve been initiated” business.
I rarely use Wiccan to describe myself these days, it’s much more often a term that I get labeled with. I certainly don’t mind it, it’s not inaccurate, but it’s also very secondary to how I think of myself.
Then: Don’t we all love the Goddess? Don’t we all call ourselves polytheists? Don’t we all share so much? I know you’re a Druid and I’m a Witch but we celebrate the same sabbats, right? It’s different kind of, but all essentially the same . . . . Yeah, that’s me twenty years ago. Oh how times have changed.
I liked Pagan as a word for a long time, and it’s still a word I use. For a while it was wildly appropriate since I did a lot of different stuff. Like many of us I’ve flirted with all kinds of Paganisms over the years. I’ve been an eclectic Witch, done some Druid stuff, dabbled in Hellenic Re-constructionism . . . and I still like the occasional experimental ritual whether that’s a Robert Cochrane thing or the 1899 Ritual.
One of the things about the word Pagan is that it seems to be changing right before our eyes. Is it a word signifying a religious grouping? That’s certainly what I used to think, and I still mostly do. There are others who see it as something else, more as a form of cultural identity than a religious or spiritual one. Where it all goes, I don’t know.
There are still times when I feel very Pagan in a primal sense. When I’m out in the woods or running around a field at night I feel so in touch with everything and the only word I can think of to describe it is Pagan. I love that and no one will ever take that away from me.
I also still feel close to a great many people who identify as Pagan, and a lot of them are far outside the sphere of Wiccan-Witch. I do feel that the days of Pagan umbrella are probably numbered. I think there are a lot of people actively trying to get out from under it (which is fine, people are free to come and go as they wish), and sometimes I feel as if there are some who want to change it so fundamentally that it won’t resemble the Pagan world I’ve lived in for the last 20 years.
I get that those last couple of sentences are kind of a downer but in fifty years will all of us currently gathered here be together? I’d like to think it’s possible, but it seems like some people want the break-up. I like a big wide Pagan world myself, it makes things far more interesting, and being challenged is a good thing, not a bad one. Only time will tell. Perhaps in fifty years you’ll be reading this on Patheos Wiccan.
Until that day I’ll continue to call myself a Wicca, a Witch (still my favorite), and a Pagan.