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Pagan vs. Wiccan

Dear Witchful Thinking,

Their seems to be a lot of debate about what is Pagan and what is Wiccan, is their a difference, is it a big one?


Kami J.

Dear Kami,

That is a loaded question that everyone seems to have an opinion on. Nobody likes to be told that the definition of the word they chose to call their spirituality is wrong. So much depends on who you ask, and in what context. Sometimes the words are interchangeable…and sometimes they’re not! So let’s get clear on some definitions.

How are your SAT analogies?:

Paganism: Wicca:: Christianity: Lutheran

Paganism is an umbrella term. If you are a Christian, than Pagan means “anyone who is not Christian”. This would include Muslims, Hindu, indigenous religions and atheists. However, in the Pagan community, the word has a more specific meaning. At minimum, Paganism is a earth-centered spirituality–that is, Pagans believe the earth is a sacred place. How that manifests is where the diversity comes in. Some believe the sacredness is in the form of Gods and Goddessess (polytheism), others in a belief that the whole earth is alive (pantheism) with spirits (animism). Still others believe that it all comes from a sort of sacred One which may be masculine, feminine, or gender neutral (monotheism).

Most authorities do not consider other polytheistic world religions to be Pagan. Paganism is characterized by its lack of central organization, which would disclude Shinto, Chinese folk-religion, Hindu and Santaria, for example. Because of the confusion, most ethnologists do not use the term, or may differentiate using “Neopaganism” to describe our religious movement. So when I say “paganism”, I really am shortening “neopaganism”.

To borrow the terminology, Wicca is a denomination of Paganism. It is a dualistic religion which believes that all Gods are one God, and all Goddesses are one Goddess. This does not prohibit someone from being polytheistic, and does not limit them to a pantheon. It honors the earth with seasonal festivals on the Wheel of the Year. Another typifying aspect of Wicca is the use of casting a circle to create sacred space, and inviting the elements or quarters in to the circle. The most common rituals are lunar rituals called Esbats, in which the Priestess Draws Down the Moon. It is most commonly a coven-oriented initiation mystery religion, but many Wiccans are now solitary practitioners. All Wiccans follow The Wiccan Rede.

I am a traditionalist and believe that if you do not practice all of the above mentioned things, then you are not Wiccan. You are probably Pagan. Many Pagans cast a circle to create sacred space, even inviting in the elements. And many Pagans worship the Goddess and exclude the God. And many Pagans do Esbats and Sabbats. But Wicca is a specific body of ritual and liturgy with its own system of symbolism and ethics. Pagans, on the other hand, are free to define their ethics in other ways.

The media has utilized the word “Wicca” when a character makes any use of witchcraft. Take the movie “The Craft”: the girls utilize many actual Wiccan liturgy, but have no system of ethics–therefore not true Wicca. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the character Willow becomes one of “the Wicca”, though she doesn’t do a single Esbat or Sabbat, nor follow any ethical code.

From the Buffy Episode "Storyteller"

Most likely, the Wiccan practices are used by other Pagans as a base for beginning. But Pagans use a variety of other methods. Wicca does not use ecstatic drumming in its liturgy, for example, but that is a feature of shamanism. Additionally, Wicca tends to focuses its pantheons in European mythological traditions like the Celtic, Greek and Norse. I have heard tell of Wiccans using Hindu, indigenous and Voudoun deities in their work, but I consider this to be cultural appropriation (unless you have genuine ties to those religions) since those Gods are still working and living in their own religious communities.

Some other “denominations” of Paganism:

  • Reconstruction: Hellenistic (Greek/Roman), Kemetic (Egyptian), Asatru (Norse), Romuva (Baltic polytheism), etc.
  • Goddess Worship: such as Dianic and Reclaiming, both out of California. These both use a Wiccan framing for their rituals, but seek to understand the role of the Goddess for personal power and transformation.
  • Neo-Druid: Ar nDraiocht Fein, and the British Druid Order are two examples of groups who recognize that what we know about Druid religion is too incomplete for a true reconstruction, so they utilize scholarship and modern philosophy to make this ancient knowledge applicable.
  • Witchcraft: All Wiccans are Witches but not all Witches are Wiccans! Witches are folk healers and mediators who practice folk magic. Wicca is sometimes said to be the religion of the witch.
  • Shamanism: Usually part of indigenous traditions wherin the Shaman mediates between the world of spirits and our world. They use trance work via drugs, songs, drumming and meditation to achieve their altered consciousness.
  • Ceremonial: New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, Thelema and its offshoots. Many of these have roots in Masonic traditions.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I’m sure everyone will argue with what I’ve written, but here are some books to orient you some more:

  1. Tina-Bina
    December 1, 2009 at 3:28 am

    So, this was a rather well informed and interesting read, except for a couple objections on my part:

    -I object to the inclusion of Hinduism, Shintoism and Santeria under the term “Pagan” not because of our lack of organization and their ability to keep their sh*t together, but mainly because of the origins of the word, which are European. It originally meant “hill people” or the people who fled to the hills/rural areas who continued to practice the old ways instead of converting to Christianity (who, very likely, were the preservers of some of the things we know about how people really worshipped back then). I would also say that Santeria, and the myriad other Voudun/Voodoo/Vodou traditions from the Caribbean/deep south, do have a bit more structure than Wiccans do, however they do NOT all pracice exactly the same way, nor do they give equal weight to each spirit/lwa across the board. They are becoming more and more scattered as time goes on, their practices are changing and there is not as much coherency in practice as there once was.

    -Your use of Denomination is incorrect. Pulled directly from wikipedia:

    A religious denomination is a subgroup within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity.

    The many different types of Wicca, or even just the different groups under the same church/group name under Wicca (such as the ATC and Chalice Heart) would be more like denominations. Paganism::Wicca, Asatru, Druidism, etc is more like Biblical Traditions::Christianity, Islam, Judaism. This might sound a bit nitpicky, but I feel it’s important to get our analogies right if we’re going to talk to others that are not well informed on our religion.

    /end spew of everything I learned in my Religious Studies minor.

  2. Shaiha
    December 4, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    I just wanted to give you kudos for pointing out that not all witches are wiccans.

  3. Nyteshade
    July 28, 2012 at 4:31 am

    that phrase actually goes like this…”all Pagans are Wiccan, but not all Wiccans are Pagan”.

    • Goddard
      April 21, 2014 at 11:55 am

      That phrase is wrong then because not all pagans are wiccans.

  1. May 2, 2010 at 4:29 pm

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