Defining Pagan, Witch, etc.

This comes up a lot, still. There is much confusion, not only for new folks, but sometimes for the rest of us, on the definition of various terms such as Pagan, Witch, and Wiccan. In this essay, I am not attempting academic rigor (indeed, I am composing it on my phone without recourse to source material): instead, I am explaining some of the diversity of contemporary Paganism and indicating why it is irreducibly complex.

It is also important to note that individuals may participate in multiple aspects of these movements, and each person has final say over what labels do and do not apply. I have not been elected Pagan Pope (of course not: everyone knows that’s Sannion), and despite many temptations, do not issue anathemata.

This arises in part because we are actually talking about several different but interlocking systems: religion, spirituality, magic, and culture, plus different ways of describing them: by praxis, by beliefs, and by history. To add to the confusion, we’re also saddled with some terms that have historically been pejorative: Witch, Pagan, and Heathen, for leading examples.

It is quite the tangle, so I will adopt the time-honored method of finding a handy end and tugging on it. I pick magic (which, being neither Wiccan nor Thelemic, I spell without a k). There has long been difficulty in academia in drawing a firm distinction between magic and religion. In traditional tribal societies, there is often no emic distinction between them, or between the spiritual and the mundane for that matter. In a few places we can see the beginnings of a priestly caste taking power and setting up something resembling “organized religion” (a term which to me means “You have a nice little life going here, it would be a shame if you pissed off the Gods and had plagues and droughts and fires.”) Broadly, though, magic is any one of a vast number of systems for making things happen in the manifest world by some occult or spiritual means. Here manifest means “obvious to the five ordinary senses” and occult means “hidden from the five ordinary senses,” whereas spiritual means “the subset of the occult dealing with non-corporeal intelligences.” Religion traditionally meant somewhat the same, but with a clear hierarchy where humans petition the Gods but do not expect to control them. Even this distinction spawns exceptions, but it may still be useful at times.

There are hundreds of identifiable currents arising from different cultures and histories within contemporary magic: folk magic from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific; Hermetic magic, Alchemy, Hebrew Kabalah, the Grimoire Tradition via the Levant and Alexandria, Arabic and Persian magery, the religions of India and Tibet, well or poorly understood; the ritual-oriented systems synthesized from many sources and surviving in Agrippa, Eliphas Levi, and the Rosicrucian literature which gave rise to Freemasonry, the Golden Dawn, and many branches therefrom (including Thelema and most of the ritual structure of Gardnerian Wicca.) Most of the folk-magical influences have lost their religious context, except for some American Indian practices and of course the African Diaspora religions, of which New Orleans Voodoo and Cuban Santeria are the most influential in the USA (actually the survival of Vodoun by hiding under a Catholic basket is another fascinating bit of history that might have a lot to say about the religion/magic distinction).

Now, many but by no means all Pagans and Heathens engage in some form of magic, yet one can be a magician or occultist without being Pagan/Heathen; in fact, magicians can be of any religion or belief system, or of none. They may, like some Chaos Magicians, put on and take off beliefs like suits of clothes or colored contact lenses.

A Witch is a person with magical practices at least partly grounded in folk tradition, but one must bear in mind that folk tradition has repeatedly gone through cycles of mutual influence with the Grimoire Tradition and Hermeticism.

A Wiccan (originally “one of the Wica”) is a member of an initiatory, magic-based, mystery religion derived from or allied to Gardnerian Wicca, OR someone who practises some sort of Witchcraft strongly influenced by Gardner, et al., but outside of the initiatory lineages and with any of a number of eclectic admixtures from other sources.

Contemporary Paganism overlaps the various magical traditions, but also includes people for whom the old Gods (whether of Europe, the Near East, the Hellenic world, or somewhere else), along with revival of some set of old holidays and modes of worship, take center stage. The people involved with reviving the ways of Northern (Germanic-speaking) Europe usually prefer the term Heathen both because it is Germanic and, well, it is not Pagan. There are revivalist or reconstructionist groups for just about every old religion imaginable.

So: magicians can be religious or not and Pagan or not; Witches are a type of magician; Wiccans are also Witches but are Pagan by definition (but Wicca is not the sole form of Pagan Witchcraft); Pagans and Heathens are part of one of many possible pre-Christian-derived religious movements.

Confused yet? Good, stay that way, it is healthy and realistic. I am working on being concerned less with where I am in Modern Occult Taxonomy and more with manifesting my true nature and that of my Gods, and yet it is useful to understand just how much diversity there is even as we all influence one another.

The traditional definition of magic I used above also ignores most of what I personally do. It’s actually a definition of thaumaturgy. I didn’t see any way to go back in, pry it open, and insert theurgy without a grammar meltdown, so I added this note.

About freemanpresson

Healer, Celto-Cherokee Pagan, Priest, Frater of the Church of the Hermetic Sciences, sometime writer, astrologer.
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7 Responses to Defining Pagan, Witch, etc.

  1. Scarlet St James says:

    You forgot to mention New Orleans voodooist like myself. We do make for a creative bunch.

    • There you go, I updated to include the Diaspora. I thought about you on the way through the first time, but my fingers got tired of typing on my phone.

  2. Pingback: Some more things I’d like to share « The House of Vines

  3. Apparently Sannion doesn’t remember being proclaimed Pope on LJ a few years back!

    • Oh, yeah. I vaguely recall something along those lines. Must have been all the drugs and debauched orgies. Sorta makes everything a blur.

      Anyway, just wanted to say I’ve really enjoyed reading back through your posts here and have added it to my google-reader so I can stay current. I’ve missed chatting with you since leaving LJ

  4. Pingback: Defining Paganism, last try | Freeman's Reviews

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