Is there a difference between Wicca and Witchcraft?

*This was originally written on 8-22-10 as a blog entry. I’ve updated it since and decided to make it a page of its own.

Witch – Etymology: Middle English wicche, from Old English wicca, masculine, wizard & wicce, feminine, witch; akin to Middle High German wicken to bewitch, Old English wigle divination, and perhaps to Old High German wîh holy. (Meriam Webster Dictionary)

My short answer to this is: No, there is no difference. Wicca IS Witchcraft. It is not a separate practice that doesn’t use magic. If you aren’t doing magic, or are rejecting magic solely for the religious views and beliefs, then you aren’t practicing Wicca. You are instead practicing Paganism. Wicca is not the only form of Witchcraft, but it is incorrect to say that Wicca is not Witchcraft or that it is not the same thing as Witchcraft. It is. For more detail to this, please keep reading. 

When discussing the differences or similarity between concepts the first thing one must do is clarify their definition. I use the terms ‘Witch’ and ‘Wicca’ interchangeably, because my personal practice is both. Not everyone does that and there is some confusion over the difference, or in the case of my opinion, the lack of a difference between them.

The definitions I use place Witch and Wicca as the same word, the only difference is in modern pronunciation. I don’t use Wicca to define a particular traditional initiatory-only mystery religion that formed in the New Forest region of England. When speaking about that particular use of the word Wicca, I add “British Traditional” to it. — i.e. Gardnerian Witchcraft is one type of British Traditional Wicca.

I do not think that it is the word Wicca which should be limited in definition to only defining the British Traditional practices. Wicca describes both British Traditional Wica/Witchcraft and the non-initiatory rites that are described by the Wiccan Rede and the Thirteen Principles of Wiccan Belief. I think Witchcraft should be limited in definition to defining the practices of Wicca and other north-western European forms of magic since the two are literally the same word and that sorcerer, magician, magus, and other terms should be used to describe people who practice magic in accordance to other belief systems.

As I see it, Wicca and Witchcraft each have two definitions floating around in use. One of the definitions of Wicca is the same as one of the definitions of Witchcraft, one definition of each is different and this is what causes the confusion.

Wicca definition 1: Lineaged, oathbound, mystery tradition popularized by Gerald Gardner. His specific form and the lines descended from him, British Traditional Wicca from the New Forest region of England, have specific deities: a God and a Goddess, whose names are known only to members of that group. It incorporates elements of European folk magic and shamanism, Free Masonry, and some teachings of ceremonial magic as that was what was understood/popular at the beginning of the 20th century. He added these elements to a system that was already in place to ‘flesh it out.’ He did not create a new system/religion and give it a new name.

Gardner and the others who practiced this called it Witchcraft. Wicca means “Witch” in the Anglo-Saxon language and was originally pronounced as ‘Wich-ah”. It is OUR modern version of the word to pronounce the ‘ cc’ as a ‘k’. Wiccacraeft (Anglo-Saxon) is Witchcraft — there is no difference.

Wicca definition 2: Since Gardner’s publications and his putting Wicca out there in public, there have been other offshoots who take what they understand to be Wicca, based on the public information (outer court BTW practices) and have developed various other branches of Wicca. This is how solitary and the eclectic forms of Wicca came about. What ties them all together though is the religious belief in divinity as both feminine and masculine — either as a God and Goddess or multiple gods/goddesses. The importance is that both genders are present, there’s less focus on how both are present. Those believing they don’t necessarily practice Witchcraft see it as something separate, putting Wicca as a religious belief and Witchcraft as a practice fit into this definition. (I do not agree with separating one into practice and one into belief when speaking in terms of religion — this will be explained further along in this blog post)

Witchcraft definition 1: The same as Wicca’s first definition. “Witch” is a word in the English language. English is Germanic (Saxon roots) and Latin (Roman influence) When Gardner was initiated, the words used were something like, “Scire, now you are Wicca.” (paraphrasing) Gardner heard that and began spelling what he thought he heard as Wica. The single ‘c’ is what gave the word a ‘k’ sound. Gardner did not invent the word as a term for magical practitioner and he wasn’t the first one to use it in this sense. Ten years before Gardner published anything, J.R.R. Tolkien used the word wicca to describe one of his wandering wizards. Tolkien is known for his scholarship on Anglo-Saxon language so this is a valid hint as to the word’s use pre-Gardner.

Witchcraft definition 2: As English speakers, we’re using an English word to describe what it means to people rooted in the English culture. Witchcraft has been used to describe works of magic, folk medicine, shamanic practices, spirit communication, etc. because that is what the ancient people of Europe and specifically the Anglo-Saxon areas (northern/western/British Isles) used. It’s the way “witch-doctor” was used by English explorers as a label for African tribal magic-users.

This is why people say that the word ‘witchcraft’ can be applied to any practice that follows these without the involvement of “Wiccan or Euro-Pagan beliefs/religion”. This is where groups or people fit if they claim they practice a different brand of Witchcraft that isn’t Gardnerian/BTW. The “I’m a Witch, not Wiccan” fits into this area because they believe the word Wicca is only for those of a Gardnerian mindset/lineage/heritage.

‘Wicca’ means Witch — there is no getting around that. Personally, I don’t see how someone can claim to be Wicca without also accepting Witchcraft. ‘Craft’ means a skill being used: “he crafted a boat out of pipecleaners.” It’s DOING something. If ‘crafting’ is the ‘doing’ then by saying you aren’t doing WitchCRAFT, aren’t you also saying you aren’t actually practicing anything?

Witch is an interesting word. Given its root, weik, it means one who is wise, who can bend and shape energy and manipulate it.

A Witch is someone with the knowledge of the earth, plants and herbs, stones, sacred places, and spirits. Wicca also shares the same root as ‘wicker’, meaning something created from twisting or bending straw. A Witch is someone who understands these natural forces and energies and works in communion with them, twisting or bending them. Traditionally, this might have been done for the good of the people in the community in which the Witch lived. Witches were similar to and sometimes could serve as shamans, midwives, counselors, cunningmen, folk-healers, seers, and diviners.

Z. Budapest has one of the best explanations for Witch I have ever come across. She said:

“A Witch relates to the Earth as a living, conscious being and all of the stuff on her is equally living and conscious.”

It’s important to understand that the use of magic alone does not make someone a Witch. If you use magic, but don’t follow the religious beliefs associated with the old origins of Witchcraft, you are a magician, not a Witch.

This goes for the use of the name Witch added to beliefs like Christianity or Satanism. You can be a Christian magician/sorcerer/sorceress (though other Christians would object) but you cannot be a Christian Witch.

Gardner’s Input and Influences

Gerald Gardner is credited with forming the basic ritual and setup for modern Wiccan practices. The idea of the directions for the four elements, of circle casting, of rites of initiation, of the specific use of tools, and everything else that’s commonly found in a Wicca-101-type book, is seen as his work, influenced by the orders and societies he belonged to as well as texts he studied as an amateur anthropologist and British Civil Servant.

True to Dorothy Clutterbuck’s (his initiating priestess) training and wishes, Gardner’s form of Witchcraft was secretive and initiatory only. He borrowed rites and practices from the Freemasons (he was a member) and was in contact with another popular occultist, Aleister Crowley, whose magical philosophy and practices helped to form a foundation for Wicca’s magical work. He studied books such as Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe, The White Goddess by Robert Graves, and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough for historical references. These books claimed the ancient roots of Paganism and Goddess worship in Europe. Further studies by more current historians have since then debunked a portion of Murray’s work, and the others, but when the books were written, it was believed to be the most exact studies to date. This is why it is important to study history – both old and new.

One of Gardner’s High Priestesses, Doreen Valiente, is credited with many of the liturgical Wiccan writings and teachings, including the popular “Charge of the Goddess.” These, along with Gardner’s own practices, were melded together into the tradition of Wicca practiced as a more modern religion.

From a Traditionalist viewpoint Wicca is considered a structured belief system/religion with specific deity forms, rites, rituals, etc. The founder or founders of this specific system are open to a bit of debate but at the root, it’s accepted that Wicca, as it is now understood, began somewhere in the British Isles. For the sake of this explanation I’m going to use Gerald Gardner as the founder and his spiritual descendants and the offshoots of Gardnerian Wicca to explain the belief that only members of these lineaged traditions are Wiccans.

Among traditions centered in the British Isles that aren’t linked to Gardner, there is still the ‘lineaged-oathbound-mystery’ basis to the religion so they all seem to fit in here.

Wicca as Gardner practiced, then later organized and taught it, is a lineaged and oathbound mystery tradition. This means that in order to become a Wiccan, one must be brought into a coven, sworn to secrecy, and initiated and taught by a person with the power and authority to confer initiation. Without this initiation into the religion, one is not considered Wiccan. I believe this occurred in great part because prior to Gardner publicizing Wicca/Witchcraft with  his books, the only way anyone could learn anything about Witchcraft or practice it was through joining and training within an oathbound coven. The only exception to this was if one had a personal family history of the Craft. But if you had that, you didn’t have to seek training outside of your family anyway.

This is similar to Catholic belief in that one cannot be a ‘self-dedicated’ Catholic. If you were to study books about Catholicism and then say, “This is right for me! This is what I believe! I’m going to become a Catholic!” You could not dedicate yourself and claim that you are Catholic without going through the traditional rites. You would have to study catechism, take communion, and be brought into the Catholic faith through certain rituals. Catholics would not consider a ‘self-dedicated Catholic’ to be authentic, no matter how fervently the individual shares the religion’s beliefs.

However, here’s where I differ with this point:

Wicca is the old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Witch”. In Anglo-Saxon it is even pronounced ‘witcha’. Gardner changed the spelling to ‘Wica’ , essentially changing it to what it is now popularly called: ‘wickah’. In the Anglo-Saxon language Wicca was the word for a male Witch, Wicce for a female, and Wiccan for plural. One would have said, “Edmund is a Wicca. Eliza is a Wicce. They are two Wiccan.”  (It’s not unheard of to use a different ending for the plural of a word in our modern language. An example of this is child does not become childs, it becomes children.)

Along with this, wiccacraeft is the old Anglo-Saxon word for Witchcraft. Gardner and other traditionalists often called their religion and practice “The Craft” or “The Old Religion”, freely using the words Witch and Wicca to describe the same thing.  But Gardner and his traditional descendants don’t ‘own’ the word Wicca. Mike Nichols, a well-respected elder of Wicca and Paganism has this to say:

Witchcraft 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.

Tolkien is well-known for his scholarship of the Anglo-Saxon language. If he used the word Wicca to describe a character a full ten years before Gardner first came forth and the two had no influence upon one another, then Gardner and his descendants do not have sole claim to the word. He did not invent Wicca, as detractors try to claim. He added to it and publicized it. Someone was doing magic and witchcraft in England when Gardner came into it. He worked with them, building it up and creating what we now know as Wicca. We as modern Witches owe him a great deal for doing so.

The popular definitions of Witch, Wicca, Pagan, and Craft have changed and expanded as words do given enough time and diversity. Nothing is immune from evolution, least of all language. Nowadays there is more open acceptance than there used to be of ‘self-dedicated’ (non-lineaged/non-traditional) Wiccans as valid, but most hard-core traditionalists would prefer a name other than Wicca to be used, believing that these self-dedicated people are better labeled as ‘Pagan’ or ‘Witch’ and claiming that Wicca should only be applied to those of this certain tradition and lineage or its authenticated branches.

I mean no disrespect to members of British Traditional Wicca (BTW) groups, but if they want to distinguish themselves from the myriad of newer traditions or beliefs that have sprung up, either in groups or among those seeking to study the Craft as a solitary practitioner, they should continue to refer to themselves as British Traditional Wiccans, The Wica, or by some other name that adds to the label ‘Wicca’ rather than seek to claim a monopoly they don’t have sole claim to. At one time, it was reasonable to be considered the only legitimate Wiccans in the world, since closed covens were the only source of knowledge for Wicca. Even today, seekers will not learn the rites and mysteries or have that particular instruction, training, or experience outside of BTW and such should never be lusted after outside of those traditions. They have worked hard to have and hold them. However, now with multiple books and information on the history of European Paganism and Witchcraft, it is quite possible for someone to learn about and come to the Craft on their own, guided and taught by the gods. Every effort should be made on the seeker’s part to do this as honorably and with as much knowledge as possible.

Continued in Part 2

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