A Witch By Any Other Name (The Great Wicca vs. Witchcraft Debate)
Author: Mike Nichols
“A difference that makes no difference is not a difference.” –Ambassador Spock
It took more than twenty years before I first ran across the notion that Witchcraft and Wicca were not the same thing. I don’t remember where I first read it, but I do remember feeling bemused at such an assertion, and assumed the author had failed to do adequate research into the origins of the word “witch”. I also assumed I’d heard the last of it. I assumed wrong!
Over the years, I’ve seen this sentiment turning up more and more, in conversations, in online discussions and websites, and even in published works on Witchcraft. It is often stated with such conviction that one might conclude it is the very least one needs to know on the subject. The author is usually at pains to convey the distinction that Wicca designates a religion, whereas Witchcraft is merely the practice of magic. In recent years, I have come across three further amplifications: The first is that some groups identify themselves as practicing Wicca exclusively, as a religious or spiritual path. As such, they do not hold with the more “debased” practice of Witchcraft or other magic! The second is that some groups claim that Witchcraft predates Wicca (which they apparently believe was invented by Gerald Gardner) and is therefore more “authentic”. The third is that only practitioners who are in a lineal descent from Gardner or one of his covens may use the word Wicca to describe their tradition. All others would have to default to the word Witchcraft for their praxis.
Needless to say (or is it?), this so-called “distinction” between Witchcraft and Wicca came as a huge surprise, and a bit of a shock, to those of us who embarked upon this path back in the 1960s and ’70s. Although the term Wicca was known (as the origin of the word Witch), it was seldom used. We were Witches, pure and simple. And we practiced Witchcraft, or sometimes “the Craft”, or (based on a popular but incorrect etymology) “the Craft of the Wise”, or “the Old Religion”. But nobody practiced “Wicca”. Even Gardnerians called themselves Witches, typically modified by others to Gardnerian Witches. On the rare occasion when the word Wicca did come up, it was used interchangeably with Witchcraft. Most often, it was when someone was trying to dodge the issue. Potential father-in-law: “So what is this weird cult my daughter says you’re into?” Boyfriend (blood draining from face): “Uhhhhh….. OH! I think you must mean Wicca? yeah, that’s it… Say, how about those Dodgers?”
The attempt to make a distinction between the spiritual, devotional, or celebrational side of our religion, and the more utilitarian use of ritual and ceremony to effect desired changes in our world, would never have occurred to us. One of the principle tenets of Witchcraft is that the spiritual and material sides of life interpenetrate one another and cannot be meaningfully separated. To attempt to do so is to encourage the sort of Neo-Platonic dualism that has bedeviled our Western society for centuries and led to, among other things, the demonizing of sex and the body, and disdain for our environment. In fact, any attempt to separate Wicca from Witchcraft, the religious practice from the magical practice, is not only historically misguided, but politically dangerous. It plays us directly into the hands of our detractors. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The first question to tackle is where this idea came from. It clearly wasn’t there in the 1960s. Nor can it be found in the writings of the 1970s. In fact, an unambiguous reference to this idea does not occur until the late1980s! So the first thing to realize is that this notion is of far more recent vintage than most people would believe. Books about Witchcraft (such as Sybil Leek’s Diary of a Witch, in which she speaks of Witchcraft as a religion) began to be published frequently from the 1960s onward, yet they used the word Wicca quite sparingly. In fact, the first popular book to use the word Wicca in the title did not appear until 1988! This was Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Had this title appeared in bookstores in the ’60s or ’70s, the most likely reaction, even from Witches themselves, would have been “Huh?!” They would have recognized the word, but would have wondered why such an obscure term should have been preferred to a common one. Not coincidentally, Scott Cunningham was among the first writers to claim there is a difference between Wicca and Witchcraft.
But is there really a difference? In point of fact, “wicca” and “witch” are the same word. This cannot be overstated because few people today believe it. Nonetheless, it is true. Wicca is simply the earlier form of the word witch. Proof of this can easily be found in the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary. The O.E.D. (as it is known by scholars) is the highest court of appeals for questions of etymology. “Witch” comes from the Saxon word “wicca”. That is a noun with a masculine ending, and (hold on to your pointy hats!) it should properly be pronounced “witch’-ah”, not “wick’-ah”! In the Saxon tongue, nouns had either masculine or feminine endings, depending on their referents. The feminine form was “wicce”, properly pronounced “witch’-eh”. Note the same word was applied to both males and females (no ‘warlocks’ here!), with only the ending changed. As the word evolved into modern English, the gender ending was dropped, leaving us with a word that is pronounced “witch”, and ultimately spelled that way.
When you consider that the Saxon “cc” was pronounced “tch”, it becomes easier to understand how the modern word “witch” is derived from the Old English “wicca”, and how, ultimately, they are the same word. To say that they are different words, with a different provenance, and different meanings, is to ignore these simple facts. While we’re at it, here’s one more surprise: the word “wiccan”, although typically used by modern Witches to modify a noun (“This is a Wiccan ceremony.”), is not an adjective. It’s a plural noun. One wicca, two wiccan. That’s the masculine plural ending, obviously. The feminine plural form would be “wiccen” (rhymes with bitchin’). 😉 Although in modern English, the “s” or “es” plural ending is the most common, the “an” or “en” plural is not unknown, the most obvious example being child > children.
So how is it that Wicca came to be seen as distinct and separate from Witch, in both provenance and meaning? One might speculate that Gerald Gardner himself played a role. Not only did Gardner revive and popularize the craft of the witch, he also revived and popularized the older Saxon form of the word, wicca. In doing so, however, he spelled it with only one “c”, rendering it as “wica” in his writings. This tended to undermine the correct “tch” pronunciation of the original “wicca”, and thus to obscure its obvious connection with the word “witch”. Further, it may have encouraged the now common pronunciation of “wicca” as “wick’-ah”, an entirely new critter in our English lexicon. This criticism of Gardner’s spelling may actually be too harsh considering “wicca” dates to a time before dictionaries or standardized orthography were invented.
Incidentally, there are some authors today who are so convinced that Gardner invented modern Wicca, or Witchcraft (as opposed to simply reviving it), that they also mistakenly believe that he invented the word “wicca” itself! (Even more amusing, an article on a well-known Wiccan website recently claimed that Selena Fox invented the word Wicca in the 1960s!) Again, anyone who takes the trouble to do a modicum of research will discover the antiquity of the word. According to the O.E.D. (and as noted by Doreen Valiente), the oldest extant appearance of the word “wicca” can be found in the Law Codes of Alfred the Great, circa 890 C.E. Alfred was a Christian and zealous about converting everyone under his rule to his faith. Those who followed the pre-Christian “superstitious” practices of their Pagan ancestors were called Wiccan, whether they were Alfred’s own countrymen, or the Celtic people in the areas Alfred was conquering. What did the Celts themselves call these people, in 890? Not Wiccan, because that was the Saxon word for it. Very probably, they used some form of the modern word “druid”. That being the case, we have a scenario dating back over a thousand years, where the word “Witch” was applied to people who called themselves “Druid”. This is one reason I have always believed that Druidism is one of the tributaries (and a large one!) of modern Witchcraft. (This will no doubt give hissy-fits to all those authors who have written Wicca-Isn’t-Celtic articles.)
So now the question becomes, did the word Wicca become totally extinct at some time before Gardner resurrected it? The answer will come as a shock to many. It may have been “extinct” in the sense of being replaced by “witch” in common usage, but it continued to be known in its earlier form, “wicca”, even before Gardner came onto the scene. One quick and obvious proof of this is that J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, used the word “wicca” when drafting his earliest manuscript of The Two Towers. We know this because Tolkien’s son Christopher has meticulously documented his father’s creative process throughout twelve volumes of analysis. In volume seven, “The Treason of Isengard”, Ch. XX, “The Riders of Rohan”, Christopher mentions, in a passing footnote, that Tolkien uses the word “wicca” apparently to identify the characters Gandalf and Saruman, who were otherwise called “wizards” throughout the trilogy. The word “wicca” is written in the margin next to the scene discussing the identity of a mysterious old bearded man wondering Rohan. Tolkien was writing this draft in 1942, ten years before Gardner published his first treatise on Wica. So it is impossible for Gardner to have influenced Tolkien’s use of the term. Nor did Tolkien influence Gardner, since this marginalia was unpublished. These were totally independent uses of the same word by different authors working in different fields, with Tolkien giving the more common spelling a full decade before Gardner.
Therefore, if Wicca is merely an earlier form of the word Witch, and still extant in the decades before Gardner, it seems highly unlikely that Wicca and Witchcraft mean two different things. Of course, to make them perfectly parallel, one should give the latter the fuller Saxon form, Wicce-cræft. But what did the word Wicca actually mean? How does one define it? Before traveling too far down that road, it will be necessary to dismiss a couple of pop etymologies that have gained favor in recent decades. The first is that “wicca” is the origin of our modern words “wisdom” and “wise”. Hence, Wicce-cræft is the “Craft of the Wise”. This is a lovely concept, and one embraced by many practicing Witches today who call their religion “the Craft of the Wise”, or simply “the Craft” for short. Sadly, this etymology is no longer supportable. Still, it is easy to see how the confusion arose, since the two concepts touch each other at many historical points. It was a common practice for many centuries to refer to the village herbalist or midwife as either a “witch” or a “wise woman”. As Reginald Scott says in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (published in 1584), “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.'” We also know that the male equivalent of such a person was often termed a “wizard” (remember Tolkien’s wizards, also designated “wicca”), and wizard is etymologically connected to the words “wisdom” and “wise”. Finally, it will be recalled that King Alfred applied the word “wiccan” to people who very probably referred to themselves by a variant of the word “Druid”, which has been translated as “oak wisdom” or “oak wise”. So the connection between “witch” and “wisdom”, if not linguistic, is a long-standing and stubborn one.
A slightly more recent attempt at the etymology of “wicca” relates it to an ancient word that meant “to twist or bend”. Supporters of this theory “explained” it by saying that Witches are people who “twist or bend” reality ˆ a reference to their magical workings. The only thing that seems twisted or bent about this explanation is that it is strained almost to the breaking point. So if “wicca” doesn’t mean either “twisted” or “wisdom” (or Twisted Wisdom ˆ which would be a great name for a Pagan rock band), what does it mean? My own inclination is to follow the lead of historian Jeffrey Burton Russell and trace the word wicca back to its ultimate origin in the Indo-European root word, *weik2. Linguists now believe that *weik2 had a meaning that was about halfway between our modern concepts of “religion” and “magic”. It might best be explained by drawing a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles, one labeled “religion” and one labeled “magic”. *Weik2 would apply to the area where the two circles overlap. And this meaning is just what one would logically expect. (Interestingly, the only other word in any modern Indic language that is also traced back to weik2 is the word “Veda”, a word used to designate Hindu sacred scriptures, once again underscoring its connection to religious tradition.)
So then, is Wicce-cræft or Witchcraft a religion? Is someone designated as Wicca or Witch a follower of that religion? The short answer is that it all depends on what you mean by “religion”. Scholars of comparative religion will already know where I’m going with this. In our Western culture, we tend to think of religion in very narrow terms. We suppose it always comes with certain trappings and structures, and that it remains highly consistent over time. We might assume a religion must have specific beliefs, that it has sacred scriptures, that it has a recognizable clergy, that it has some connection to a God or Gods, that is has a specific set of rituals, that is has a hierarchy of followers, or that it champions a certain set of moral precepts. Surprisingly, as travelers to the Orient have discovered, many of the world’s great religions break one or more of these rules. All the more so do the hundreds of smaller, tribal, and aboriginal religions break them. Some of these religions are little more than a loose collection of rituals and devotions that change dramatically over time. They are not the large-scale, well-funded, organized religions typical of the West. Rather, they might best be described as “folk religions”. It is in this sense that Witchcraft is a religion. And always has been. And always will be.
No, of course Witches don’t practice their rituals the same way their Pagan ancestors did two thousand years ago. Neither do Christians still gather in catacombs to hold their agapes. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t followers of Christianity. Any more than Witches aren‚t followers of their own ancient religion. Of course Witches didn’t call their religion “Witchcraft” two thousand years ago. Neither did Christians call theirs “Christianity”. They didn’t even speak the same language! Any more than Witches did! Nor did they worship the same Gods! The Jewish religion once had many Gods (and Goddesses! ˆ see the work of Raphael Patai) and, according to archeological evidence, kept them well into Roman times, long after the monotheistic reforms were supposed to have taken place. (There’s something you won’t hear from your local Rabbi!) Early Christians had many Gods and Goddesses, too, as anyone familiar with the Nag Hammadi Library knows only too well. Yes, I’m speaking of “Gnostic” Christians, but remember they probably outnumbered the proto-orthodox Christians by the second century and, as recent archeological discoveries have shown, spread as far as the British Isles! What eventually became “normative” Christianity had to be painfully hammered out at Nicea and similar Church councils over the centuries. Most religions, including Christianity, have gone through just as many changes down the centuries as Witchcraft has, and yet we don’t doubt their continuity. Why should Witchcraft be held to a different standard?
When Christianity and Witchcraft first began to clash, Christianity certainly regarded Witchcraft as a competing religion. In the “Canon Episcopi”, a part of official Church doctrine, which may date back to the fourth century, Witches were accused of following the Goddess Diana. It wasn’t until later that the Church shifted its stance and began accusing Witches of devil-worship, instead. Although Margaret Murray is the scholar usually credited with the thesis that European Witchcraft was the remnants of the old, pre-Christian Pagan faith, she was by no means the first to suggest this. That honor should probably go to German linguist and folklorist Jacob Grimm (yep, that Jacob Grimm, of Grimm’s Fairy Tales fame). However discredited some of Murray’s ideas may have become, to jettison her core thesis (and Grimm’s) may be throwing the baby out with the bath. Modern historian Carlo Ginzburg, in his exploration of the “Benandanti” in sixteenth and seventeenth century Italy, has unearthed much well-documented evidence of the survival of ancient European Pagan spiritual practices well into the Christian era. Since this material has been widely accepted even by skeptics, could it also throw new light on that pivotal 1899 publication by Charles Godfrey Leland, Aradia, or The Gospel of the Witches, which examines the survival of Witchcraft practices in Tuscany? If one defines “religion” in the broad sense used by scholars of comparative religion, it seems clear that Witchcraft does indeed meet the criteria. But Witchcraft is even more than that.
It is also the practice (or the “craft”) of magic. As we have seen, “wicca” may have come from a word that mixes elements of religion and magic in equal parts. Why is this so important? Because it underscores the idea that religion and magic are not mutually exclusive, that they can exist side by side harmoniously: that religious people can use magic to improve their lot, and that people who use magic can be spiritual, religious, “good” people. Academics had long tried to drive a wedge between religion and magic. This can be traced back to the pioneering work of Sir James Frazer and The Golden Bough. Although modern occultists may honor him for codifying the “laws” of magic, he had another agenda. Like most social scientists of his day, he was overwhelmed by Darwinian thinking and began applying evolutionary theory to everything, even to areas where it didn’t fit. Consequently, magic, in Frazer’s view, was nothing more than a debased precursor to “true” religion. As he saw it, the evolution went something like this: Mankind started with a flawed version of cause and effect, called sympathetic and contagious magic. Then, as he evolved, he became animistic, invoking the spirits that inhabit every river, tree, and rock. Then, as he became still more enlightened, he became polytheistic, believing in many Gods and Goddesses, each with different functions. Finally, as man evolved into the paragon of reason that he is today (sic!), he became monotheistic, realizing there could be only One True God.
Granted, this model was quickly dismantled, at least in academic circles. Theodore Gastor, professor of comparative religion, took Frazer to task for this idea, in his preface to a newer critical edition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Gastor rightly points out that even the most “primitive” magician does not typically perform magic without invoking a God or Goddess. And in even the most “sophisticated” monotheistic religions, there is still a goodly amount of magic, although it may be re-christened as “liturgy” and “prayer”. (In the West, the Catholic Mass is the parade example of magic as liturgy.) In fact, Gastor goes on to posit that religion and magic are inescapably found together throughout all cultures of the world, throughout all periods of history. Although academics have accepted this revision, non-specialists have been slower to catch on, and the Frazerian model still holds sway for many. It especially appeals to those “sophisticated” monotheists who believe they have already attained the zenith of theological ideals, and that the practice of magic could not possibly have a place in it. Apparently, there are even some new “Wiccan” groups that buy into this, seeing themselves as religious only, and holding themselves above such practices as magic.
To sum up, it seems that the current drive to separate Wicca from Witchcraft, to say that one refers to religion while the other refers to magic, is full of “Frazerian residue”. It appeals to those who are uncomfortable with the thought that religion and magic can happily co-exist. (I suspect that it appeals mainly to Witches who are recent converts from monotheistic creeds, yet have ported a certain amount of their previous belief system into their new faith.) Yet both historically and linguistically, it can be shown that Witch and Wicca are the same word, and that they both mean the same thing, a combination of religion and magic. I am perfectly aware, however, of something that linguists call the “etymological fallacy”, i.e. that a word means its etymology. We all know that the meaning of words can change over time. Maybe this has already happened to the word Wicca. Maybe too many people have too often repeated the newborn platitude, “Wicca and Witchcraft are not the same thing.” Perhaps it is already too late to turn the tide of opinion. Nonetheless, supporting this view would be a catastrophic mistake for a religion like ours. And more to the point, it could be politically dangerous.
It wasn’t long ago that Witches were sometimes arrested for the “crime” of “fortune telling”, e.g. for reading Tarot cards, etc. In many such cases, Witches were able to mount a successful defense by arguing that such magical practices were part of their religion. However, I can envision a scenario in the not-too-distant future where the prosecutor will counter with, “That’s not true! Her religion may be Wicca, but she was merely practicing Witchcraft!” In a culture like ours, in which all magic is seen as suspect by the increasingly political majority religion, it is perilous to allow a dark line to be drawn between religion and magic. Words like Witch and Wicca present us with a unique opportunity to erase that line. These words are the linguistic equivalent of a petri dish in which the cultures of religion and magic have been allowed to mix in equal proportions. I believe it is important for us to champion this unique mix of beliefs. When I first embraced Witchcraft as my path, I knew I was embracing both a religion and a practice of magic. Therefore, I will continue to proclaim that I am a Witch, and I am Wiccan, for it means the same thing. It is my religion, and it is my craft. It is my life.
Most Recent Text Revision: February 25, 2006 c.e.
Proofing and editing courtesy of Acorn Guild Press.
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