Witches and Wiccans: A New Take on the Great Debate
Author: Taryn Anu
Wicca and Witchcraft are by nature surrounded by myths and misconceptions, and though we often try to clear up such misconceptions, there are some issues upon which even we in the pagan community cannot agree. “The Great Debate, ” as those like myself jokingly call it, is one such matter that is at a stand still. In The Wicca Handbook by Eileen Holland, published in 2000, she states, “All Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccan.” This statement is based on the assumption that all Wiccans must practice witchcraft in their worship, but that witchcraft can be practiced without the moral code or spiritual purpose of Wicca.
However, in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft Third Edition, published in 2006, writers Denise Zimmermann and Katherine A. Gleason, along with reviser Miria Liguana, state that “Not all Wiccans are witches, and not all witches are Wiccans, but a lot of them are.”
Instantly there is a giant rift formed between subscribers to either idea. At first glance, one could easily say that it must be a matter of opinion. I would say that is untrue, though to prove my point entails a little bit of research.
First, we will begin by addressing the simplest issues. What is Wicca? What is a witch? According to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft, a witch is someone who uses magic in everyday life, and Wicca is an earth based religion that honors both the God and the Goddess. Of course, these definitions can be expanded upon, but to do so would mean going further down the path of exploration, which makes identifying their differences more difficult as paths diverge and converge. So, we’re just going to stick with the barest forms of each. In other words, what makes you either a witch or not, a Wiccan or not.
Next, let’s take a look at what practicing Wicca entails. Some say that by engaging in Wiccan ritual you are practicing magic and therefore by default must also be a witch. However, ceremony is not witchcraft. Most, if not all, religions hold firmly to some type of ceremony. This does not translate to witchcraft or spell craft. So what separates ritual from witchcraft? In order to better understand exactly what Wiccans use in everyday practice, we must delve further in its basic examination.
Let’s examine what ritual is in its most basic form. Wiccans rely heavily on the use of rituals in their daily lives and worship. “Ritual”, by definition from The American Heritage Dictionary is: 1. The prescribed form of a ceremony, 2. A system of ceremonies or rites, 3. A ceremonial act or a series of such acts, 4. A customary or regular procedure. Nowhere in this definition of there mention of witchcraft or spell craft. In fact, there is not mention of anything remotely linked to witches at all.
Now, the definition from the same dictionary for witchcraft is magic and sorcery, and we have established from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft that a witch is someone who uses magic in everyday life. So, in their more basic definitions we have already found that witchcraft and ritual are different.
Let us take a look at Wicca. The great debate revolves around Wiccans by default practicing witchcraft. So, in order for us to get a clear view of the issue, we must look at the cornerstone of all Wicca, the Rede. Of course, varying traditions and paths of Wicca have evolved to be more extensive than the Rede. However, it remains the indisputable separator of Wicca from other pagan paths, and in order to follow Wicca in any of its eclectic forms, one must subscribe to the Rede’s laws. Looking closely at the Rede, we find beautiful poetry mixed with wise words as in verse two, “Live an’ let live / fairly take an’ fairly give, ” that not only give us advice but also offer simple instruction on practicing as a Wiccan. Never take without giving back, and take only what you need. Live and let all other life live.
There also seems to be other more extensive verses on how to practice Wicca, examples being verse six through thirteen. In verse twenty-three the Threefold Law is spoken of, akin to Karma, and in verse three one is instructed to cast a circle three times to keep evil out. The only verse that could even remotely be labeled as magic is three, but as we’ve established, that does not necessarily mean magic is involved. Casting a circle is simply a ritual in which magic can be included. The Rede also states that to bind a spell one must speak it in rhyme, but I believe this is to advise Wiccans on spell casting should they choose to use this type of magick in their work.
Finally, I’ve demonstrated that nowhere in the practice of Wicca is there a mandate that magic must be used, but before we can completely solve this debate, we must examine what is magic. Again, let us look at the definition of the word. Using The American Heritage Dictionary we learn that magic is the art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural through the use of charms, spells, or rituals. Immediately, one could claim that said invocations using ritual constitutes magic, but as I stated before, many religions use ritual in their practice. That fact combined with the definition of ritual boiling down to a ceremony or series of ceremonies shows conclusively that just because magic is used in ritual doesn’t mean that a ritual must be exclusively magic.
At last, we can apply our gathered logic to our original issue. I have proven that (using the law that to be Wiccan in its simplest form means one must follow the Wiccan Rede) Wiccans must perform some type of ritual in their worship. I have also proven that witchcraft is the active practice of magic, which can be explained spiritually as the manipulation of energy or by definition as the purported control on forces through charms, spells, or ritual. However, going back to the basic definition of a ritual demonstrates how ritual does not have to include the practice of magic. In fact, most consider ritual to be more of a celebration of your spiritual path rather than manipulating energies. (Stay with me!) Applying the same logic to Wicca shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that to be Wiccan means engaging in some sort of ritual but not necessarily magic.
There are those who will claim that the origins and meanings of the words “Wicca” and “witch” change everything I have just presented. At this point, though, I don’t think the words’ origins matter. We are not talking about the practicing differences or similarities of our predecessor witches and Wiccans. The meanings of words change over time, so it is the modern context with which we should be concerned. I know much of following any pagan path is remembering and holding true to its roots, but I firmly believe in the evolution of religion. Not to mention that Wicca is not even an ancient religion at all, no matter where its roots come from (but that is another article for another time) .
The Goddess has had many names and faces over the centuries, after all. Too often do we cling to the past because we are afraid of the future. So what if Wicca and witchcraft were once one and the same? So what if they have evolved into two different practices? So what if Wicca is a modern, fairly young religion with really no ancient roots and often categorized as New Age?
We need to accept that our religions, our words, and their meanings are constantly changing. Why fight to stubbornly stay constant when all one has to do is experience the Wheel of the Year or look back at the history of nature to see that the world and everything in it is far from unchanging? Wicca is about spirituality and a journey along the path. Whether you perform magick in the sense of witchcraft or simply religious rituals to celebrate your spirituality, the journey is yours all the same. We should embrace all the things that make what we each do unique, rather than fighting to lump them all together.
So celebrate yourself if you are a Witch and a Wiccan, and celebrate yourself if you’re simply a Witch, and celebrate yourself if you sorely practice Wicca! Celebrate just because you’re on that journey, and revel in all the similarities and differences we share!