What is Paganism? What is Witchcraft?

What is Paganism?

The word "Pagan" comes from the Latin words paganus and pagana, meaning "country dweller or villager." Today, "Paganism" has two meanings: the earth-centered spiritual traditions of many cultures, both modern and historical, and modern revivals of ancient Pagan religions of Europe and the Middle East. These modern revivals are also called Neo-Paganism. Pagans are reviving ancient Saxon, Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse, Sumerian, Lithuanian, Finnish and other religious traditions.

Most Pagans agree that their similarities are more important than their specific doctrinal or ethnic distinctions. Common beliefs are that:

  • Nature, the Earth, and all Life is a manifestation of Divinity and is sacred.
  • The Earth is a place of joy and beauty, to be respected and held sacred. Harming oneself, others, or nature is to be avoided.
  • Divinity is both female and male, in many shapes and forms, as a multiplicity of goddesses and gods or as aspects of one.
  • Humans are meant to lead lives filled with joy, love, pleasure, and humor; and to have the wisdom and ability to solve their problems on all levels, public and private, without the need for spiritual "salvation."
  • Ideas are to be personally investigated before being accepted as faith. Dogma is to be minimized. Pagans are reluctant to accept any idea without personally investigating it.
  • Diversity is to be recognized and celebrated.
  • Hierarchical religious organizations, would-be messiahs, and gurus are to be treated with skepticism or avoided altogether.

Pagans are strongly committed to personal and social growth, evolution, and balance. They are generally open to adopting concepts from other cultures.

What is Witchcraft?

Witchcraft, also called Wicca, "The Craft," or "The Old Religion," is the modern revival of an ancient Pagan religion practiced in Europe. All Witches are Pagans, but not all Pagans are Witches. "Witchcraft" comes from the Old English word wicce, which referred to Pagan magickal/religious practices. Witchcraft's celebrations are connected to natural cycles: the changing of the seasons, harvests and plantings, and solstices and equinoxes.

Witches believe that all life is interconnected and that the Creatress and source of life is the Goddess. She has three aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Many Witches consider goddesses in cultures all over the world to be aspects of Her. Many Witches also worship the God, the consort or partner of the Goddess. He is the Grain God embodied in the harvest, the Horned God of the hunt and the flocks, and the Green Man of the forest.

Some Witches worship the Goddess and the God equally; some, primarily the Goddess; others, only the Goddess. In their rituals, Witches give thanks to the Goddess and the God for harvests and nature's abundance.

In Witchcraft, the worshiper's personal relationship with Divinity is held most important. Individual worshipers have the freedom to choose, decide and disagree with their teachers. There are no messiahs, prophets, holy books, large organizations or charismatic leaders. Witchcraft is mostly comprised of small groups and individuals.

In most Wiccan traditions, members study and practice for at least a year and a day before being initiated as Witches. In other traditions, only active worship of the Goddess and the God is necessary.

The word "witchcraft," with a small "w," is sometimes used to refer to spellcraft, talismanic magick, and divination. However, it's more accurate and less confusing to call these practices folk magick, as they are different from the religion Witchcraft (with a capital "W"). Folk magick is practiced in many cultures, and is not necessarily a religious practice. Most Pagans and Witches practice folk magick as a historical part of their religion; however, it is secondary in importance to worship, spiritual and personal growth, and living a life in harmony with the Earth.

Is There Black and White Witchcraft?

There is no such thing as "black Witchcraft" or "white Witchcraft" any more than there is "black Christianity" or "white Christianity" or a "black" or "white" of any other religion.

The Pentagram

Just as the symbol of Christianity is a cross, the symbol of Witchcraft is the pentagram. It represents the Goddess and the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. The five points also represent the elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit and how they are all interconnected. The pentagram is also an ancient symbol of protection.

Witchcraft and Paganism Today

There are over one hundred thousand Pagans and Witches in North America today, with more than five thousand in Canada. Many groups are legally-recognized religious bodies with clergy who can provide services such as performing marriages. Pagan groups do not seek converts, but many provide information and services to the public. Throughout North America and Europe today, one can find Pagan newsletters, books, stores, public rituals, coffeehouses, and artistic works and performances.

Recommended Reading

The Goddess

Elements of the Goddess, by Caitlin Matthews (Longmead: Element Books, 1989)
Goddess: Mother of Living Nature, by Adele Getty (London: Thames & Hudson, 1991)
Grandmother of Time, by Z. Budapest (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988)
The Great Cosmic Mother, by Monica S. and Barbara Mor (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987)
Laughter of Aphrodite, by Carol P. Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987)

Ritual, Theology, and Practice

Ancient Ways, by Pauline Campanelli (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1991)
Casting the Circle: A Women's Book of Ritual, by Diane Stein (Freedom: Crossing Press, 1990)
Dreaming the Dark, by Starhawk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982)
Earth magick, by Marian Weinstein (Custer: Phoenix, 1986)
Eight Sabbats for Witches, by Janet and Stewart Farrar (London: Robert Hale, 1981)
Holy Book of Women's Mysteries, by Z. Budapest (Los Angeles: Susan B. Anthony Coven No. 1, 1979-80)
The Practice of Witchcraft, by Robin Skelton (Victoria: Press Porcepic, 1990)
The Spiral Dance, by Starhawk (New York: Harper & Row, 1979)
West Country Wicca, by Rhiannon Ryall (Custer: Phoenix, 1989)
Wheel of the Year, by Pauline Campanelli (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1989)
The Witch's Way, by Janet and Stewart Farrar (London: Robert Hale, 1982)
Witchcraft for Tomorrow, by Doreen Valiente (Custer: Phoenix, 1978)

History, Sociology and General

ABC of Witchcraft, by Doreen Valiente (Custer: Phoenix, 1973)
Crafting the Art of magick, by Aiden Kelly (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1991)
Drawing Down the Moon, by Margot Adler (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979)
Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, by Marija Gimbutas (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1982)
Law Enforcement Guide to Wicca, by Kerr Cuhulain (Victoria: Horned Owl Publishing, 1992)
Rebirth of Witchcraft, by Doreen Valiente (London: Robert Hale, 1989)
Witchcraft Today, by Gerald B. Gardner (London: Rider, 1954)

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License