Witch Or Pagan: Do You Really Know The Difference?
Terminology in the world of magic can be hugely confusing. Every day people ask me if they’re a witch or a wizard, or maybe a warlock? Some people use Wicca as an umbrella term and still others are convinced that witchcraft and paganism are inseparable. This can lead to a lot of confusion! When you’re not sure what the words you’re using actually mean then it can be nearly impossible to communicate effectively with other witches and find the information that you need.
Today we’re going to address a few of these words and lay out some very clear definitions so you know exactly where you fall in this mashup of identifiers. It’s time to kick the confusion and get your witchy vocab straight!
What Is A Witch?
Merriam-Webster defines a witch as:
1: one that is credited with usually malignant supernatural powers; especially : a woman practicing usually black witchcraft often with the aid of a devil or familiar : sorceress — compare warlock
2: an ugly old woman : hag
3: a charming or alluring girl or woman
4: an adherent of Wicca
Suffice to say, that’s about as clear as mud. Is a witch old and ugly? Or young and charming? Are they bad? Earth-loving Wiccans? All of these definitions contradict!
This is one of the major reasons why our terminology can be so confusing. We’re blending old definitions and new as well as constantly expanding our words in order to match our reality. The textbook definitions just do not truly encompass the reality of modern witchcraft.
Put simply, a witch is a person who uses magical techniques to affect their world and control circumstances. That’s it, that’s the only qualifier for whether or not someone is a witch.
A witch can be religious or not. Working with deities is not a mandatory part of the craft although for many witches it can be incredibly rewarding to blend their religion and their craft. Witchcraft can be religious and it can be incorporated into religions but it can just as readily be a secular practice. Secular and atheist witches exist and their practices are just as valid as the witch who worships Norse deities and the witch who has a religion but keeps it separate from their craft. You don't have to work with gods or goddesses or any kind of formal religion so if you aren’t religious, don’t sweat it. You can absolutely still be a witch!
A witch can be any gender, sexuality, or race. No demographic has a singular claim to the craft since variations of the craft can be found in nearly every culture. Whether it’s South American Brujeria, Italian Stregheria, American Hoodoo, Wicca, or some personal amalgamation of personal heritage and modern witchcraft, witches are found all over the world!
Recently it’s become a bit of a fad to try and exclude men from the craft in some misguided attempt to protect it as a “feminine tradition”. Nothing could be further from the truth of the craft and its history. Men have had a hand in the craft for as long as it has existed! We have many men to thank for the revival of the craft in modern times, Gerald Gardner, Aleister Crowley, Victor Anderson, and many more were key players in the revival and modern witches owe much of our practices to these men!
There’s also some debate about gendered terminology. Some people feel that the word “witch” is gender neutral while others feel that “wizard” or “warlock” are better terms for male magicians. Some people refuse to use the term “warlock” at all because of the historical connotation. So what’s the correct terminology? Whatever you want! How you identify yourself in this way is entirely up to you. If you’re a man and prefer the word witch, then you’re a witch. If you’re a girl who would rather be a warlock, then warlock it is. The important thing to remember is that nobody else is allowed to dictate your identifiers and you are not allowed to dictate how anyone else identifies either.
What Is A Pagan?
When it comes to Paganism, Merriam-Webster does a little better:
1: heathen 1; especially : a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome)
2: one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods : an irreligious or hedonistic person
3: neo-pagan - witches, druids, goddess worshippers, and other pagans in America today —Alice Dowd
So how is this different from a witch? Well, in many cases these two terms are not fully separate. A person can be a witch AND a pagan. You could also be a pagan but not a witch, or a witch but not a pagan.
Paganism is an umbrella term used to refer to many different non-Abrahamic and non-Eastern religions. This includes things like Wicca, Heathenry (Norse polytheism), GaelPol (Irish polytheism), Feri, Druidry, Goddess worship, Greek and Roman reconstructionists, Kemetics, and MANY more! The key difference here is that paganism is about religion, while witchcraft is about practicing magic.
It’s important to keep in mind that while a witch may not be a pagan, that does not mean they are not religious! There are many Christian witches and I’ve even met a few Muslim and Buddhist witches as well. Some people will also have personal religious beliefs (those that they have created themselves) that might seem like paganism to an outsider but is not paganism because the person in question does not consider themselves as such. Self-identification is huge in this realm! If someone does not consider themselves a pagan please do not insist to them that they are.
Since paganism is an umbrella term, it’s also impossible to appropriate from pagans as a whole. There are many widely varied practices in this realm! It is possible to appropriate from practices that are initiatory or closed so it’s always a good idea to check and see how the practitioners of a tradition feel before you begin to use their practices but many pagan traditions welcome seekers openly.
Why It Matters
This might seem to be a lot of fiddly vocabulary nonsense but it does matter, particularly when you begin getting deeper into a witchy social group or when you’re looking to deepen or refocus your craft.
In witchy and pagan social circles, it’s always good to know the difference between these groups. I often go to an astral journeying group that is attended by people from all walks of life. Witches, Buddhists, Christians, Heathens, Atheists, there is SO much diversity in these spaces and assuming that everyone around you is in the same category as you cuts you off from many learning opportunities and robs the people around you of the chance to learn about your beliefs and practices as well.
It also helps to know what you’re looking for specifically when you’re researching, looking for books, or trying to find groups to join. If you don’t have the right vocabulary for what you’re seekingr, you might end up in a generic pagan group when you want a Greek polytheist group, or you might pick up a book on Druidry when you really wanted Irish polytheism.
Educating yourself on these terms and on the many varied traditions encompassed within them can help you deepen your own craft and find new and exciting paths to express and discover yourself. Remember, in the craft as in the rest of life, knowledge is power!