I’m a Witch, a writer, and a language nerd. These three things combined together cause my inner cauldron to boil when people claim things that don’t ring true in the context of certain words and the religio-magical expressions of the Craft.
“When (insert religious label here) people pray, they’re really casting spells.”
“Spells are the way witches pray.”
“Prayer is magic, so praying and casting spells are the same thing.”
Praying is not the same thing as casting a spell. Likewise, casting a spell is not the same thing as prayer.
Both can contain the same actions or some of the same content, but they are fundamentally different things.
A prayer is speaking to a deity, most often in a position of supplication or submission to ask for the deity’s favor to be bestowed. Prayer can take different forms–such as a prayer of gratitude–but supplication/submission is the most common. The key element here is that it puts the person praying into a position of being the ‘small’ one and the deity as being the ‘big’ one in this conversation. There’s nothing wrong with that. Deities are bigger/stronger/more powerful than we are, hence why they’re deities and why people pray to them for their involvement and assistance in our lives. But that is the definition of a prayer. It is an act of supplication, submission, and communication. It need not involve any magical component at all to be a prayer.
If you’re not involving a deity, then it’s not a prayer.
A spell is magic. Magic is the focus of energy combined with the direction of will to cause change. It need not involve deity at all. It can take the form of a full-out ritual, or something as simple as connecting with natural forces or one’s higher self/inner power to bring about a movement of energy or change in the forces that surround oneself.
If you’re not involving the focused movement of energy–personal or otherwise–then it’s not magic.
So if the definition of prayer involves deity, and the definition of a spell involves magic, but the two of them need not involve the other, then they are different things that can share some common features or attributes.
Prayers can involve magic or spells.
Spells can involve a deity, or praying to a deity.
That doesn’t mean they are interchangeable terms. There are even different terms to describe magic that involves deity (theurgy) or magic that does not (thaumaturgy).
When you perform a spell that involves asking a god or goddess to lend power or give their blessing, you are performing magic. This doesn’t mean that you’re praying. It means you’re casting a spell involving a deity.
Likewise when you speak to your gods or goddesses, if you aren’t involving energetic actions of your own or including your own Will or power in reaching the desired outcome you seek, then you are in a position of supplication and submission–you are praying.
Not working magic.
Not casting a spell.
If you view the two things as totally interchangeable, I would ask you why this is so. To me, it seems that you’re either performing magical spells with the involvement of a deity–either through supplication or asking their energy or blessing to your work, or you’re praying but possibly involving things commonly used in casting spells like candles, incense, ritual poses/postures, or even sounds.
Or you want to see what you’re doing as being more mainstream and having more in common with other religious practitioners or practices. So, you do magic or cast spells, but because that still sounds creepy or wrong in some groups, you want to use a safer, more acceptable word like pray. If you call what you’re doing a prayer, it doesn’t come across the same as calling it spellcraft or magic.
If it’s a matter of self-preservation or safety, then by all means, do what you have to do. Call it that for the sake of those who don’t understand and don’t know any better. But, don’t sell yourself or your practice short. Prayer is something that all religious people are familiar with. Some witches are religious, some aren’t. Those of us who are, pray.
But we also do magic.
And it’s okay that they aren’t the same thing.