Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Witchcraft and Paganism: What's the difference?


Regarding modern Witchcraft / Wicca and Paganism, and also the attempt to revive actual ancient 'pagan' religions. I think it's a matter of structures. Contemporary Paganism, as I am aware of it, is run on an essentially Wiccan model. That is a 'magic circle' model of 'casting the circle' the Four Elements, and a paired Deity(ies) in the middle. This format generally remains the same across Wiccan and Wiccan-inspired Pagan groups but can be "ethnically different" by swapping the deities around for those of different cultures - using Egyptian deities, Greek deities etc, but in the same 'magic circle' format. You can also combine deities/beings from several cultures in the one ritual format. A lot of people think that this 'magic circle' model *is* the "authentic ancient Pagan way of religious ritual" which under Christianity came to be thought of as "magic" but is "really ancient Pagan religion". When it is not actually ancient Pagan religion at all, but a *magic circle*, derived, I think, from the legacy of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on 20th century Wicca, Paganism and other types of Ceremonial Magic. I think that the Wiccan format is essentially the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram extended into a religious ritual. It makes sense that Wiccans would be doing the "magic circle" format, because they are essentially Witches doing magic. But for "Pagans" to be also doing the "magic circle" format is less understandable, unless they are the types of "Pagans" who want to be Wiccans (rather than the types of Pagans who want to be non-Wiccan Pagans). Not that I'm saying that modern Paganism is not Paganism, I think it is, but it is a different thing to ancient, and to Reconstructionist, Paganism.

There is a prevalent idea that "Pagans" are "uninitiated Wiccans" which probably derives from the fact that Wiccans were/are the most active in the 20th century Pagan revival (maybe). Anyway, there is an idea that "Pagans" are un-initiated Wiccans, that they are a pool of potential Wiccans and that Wiccans are the "clergy" of this pool of Pagans. Wiccans have higher status in this situation. If the Pagans want to, they can try and join this clergy. Again, it seems to be a general belief that "ancient mystery cults" were part of all ancient paganism (when as far as I know while they were prevalent in Greece, and later Rome, they weren't evident across the board of "ancient Paganism" and the idea that they were characteristic of Egyptian religion is completely wrong) and that the Wiccan initiation is a form of one of these "ancient mystery cults" - among other things. In a (modern) Pagan festival situation it could be *generally* looked at like a "Sabbat" is a big public festival that brings together all sorts of Pagans, you don't have to be an initiated Wiccan to attend. An "Esbat" could be more of a Wiccan-focused event for those who are intending to eventually become initiated, or who are already initiated. Then there might, well there will be, initiates-only rituals that are not public at all, but coven only. So a permanent membership in the mystery cult/clergy. It's three a concentric circles of types of participation, from "Pagans" on the outer, to initiated Wiccans on the inner. But all using the same "magic circle" format. That's just a general diagram that isn't necessarily concretely representative of exactly how Pagans/Wiccans work, but from my experience it seems generally right.

Reconstructionist Pagans are a completely different kettle of fish to Neo-Pagans and/or Wiccans. They research the ancient "pagan" religion(s) of their choice and then attempt to practice it. It usually looks, and is, nothing like Neo-Paganism or Wicca - because it is not about magic, is not designed on a 'magic circle' structure. Nor is it "earth-based" necessarily. Sure, some of the gods, or beliefs or practices are earth-oriented, but others aren't, they are sky-oriented, or culture-oriented. In ancient Rome for example, "magic" was a pejorative label. The Roman magistrates and Flamens, or the Vestal Virgins, were not "doing magic", that wasn't their intention, although from our point of view they might look like they were (probably because Christianity viewed other religions as magical or demonic), but Romans would have been insulted to have been thought of as doing magic when they were trying to perform civic religion. Although of course magic went on, privately. Reconstructionists don't do much in the way of "ancient mystery cults" either, because of a lack of good information on *exactly* what went on - because the ancients were so good at keeping secrets, except for ancient Christian converts who liked to blab. (Although I am more sympathetic to the idea of Recons just doing mysteries anyway, sans good info, just do the best you can - I suppose that's an example of *degrees* of historical correctness).

So... Basically Wicca/Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism are similar to each other, because they both use the 'magic circle' format for their religious/magickal space (and I think Neo-Paganism derived from Wicca, and from where Wicca derived itself from - which was the Golden Dawn) but are they are both very different to ancient "paganism" and forms of Reconstructionist Paganism. I think it is important to distinguish between modern Wiccan-Paganism and ancient pagan religions. And magic of all sorts. I also think that modern Pagans could make a bit more effort to research what they purport to be practising *or* alternatively stop claiming ancient precedents.

9 comments:

The UQ Religionists said...

Yes, you are correct. The circle rituals used in Wicca are derived from the Lessor Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, which was a creation of the Golden Dawn. I have found some info re the practice of addressing the four directions in ancient Egyptian religion. Interestingly they used to start facing North, but later changed to East. In the description I found they seem to be imagining a goddess, possibly Nut, and describe where the parts of her body are. I would be interested to hear if anybody knows why they did this or can give me any more info on these practices in ancient Egypt.

Morgan Leigh

Caroline Tully said...

That's very interesting, can you give me a citation? I do believe that soem cultures - native American for example - did turn to the Four Directions, but I don't think its historically accurate in Wicca.

The UQ Religionists said...

I'd cite my honours thesis but it hasn't been published :) I am working on a paper from it though, and I'll let you know once that is finished. However you will find info on this in Regardie's Middle Pillar (Regardie, I., Cicero, C. & Cicero, S. T. The Middle Pillar, Llewellyn, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2003, p179 and in Greer's Inside A Magical Lodge (Greer, J. M., Inside a Magical Lodge, Llewellyn, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1998, p17).

You'll have to wait for my paper to find out the sources the GD had for the ritual :) though I can tell you it has a Jewish connection.

Morgan Leigh

Tiara said...

I've always understood Wicca to fall under the umbrella of Paganism, which encompasses most spiritual practices that aren't Abrahamic (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) or descended from such religions (Baha'i). Witchcraft is more a practice of magic that is occasionally incorporated into other religions but can stand alone - aside from the usual Pagan Witches, there are also strong witchcraft cultures within some Abrahamic religions (where I come from there is a strong Islamic Witchcraft practice within traditional Malay people). Witchcraft doesn't necessarily need a religious basis.

InĂªs Raven said...

I think your first paragraph is perfect. I always thought this sistem of four elements/four directions as a "wiccan creation".

Is terrible to know that still have people who thinks that Wicca and other Neopagans religions come to nowadays directly from pre-christian people, without no influences.

Caroline Tully said...

Tiara, you said, "Witchcraft doesn't necessarily need a religious basis."

I am specifically talking about Wiccan-inspired contemporary Witchcraft, not about folkloric witchcraft that appears in many different cultures. That is really a different thing to neo-Pagan Wiccan Witchcraft.

Valerie Voigt said...

In the U.S.A., the Pagan revival is much more heterogeneous than what you are describing. Plenty of the Pagan folk here have only vaguely heard of Wicca, or have read a couple of books but aren't interested in participating. Of the latter, some prefer some other style of ritual, whether learned from someone or developed by themselves; others do no ritual, but simply talk with the Deities, make offerings--say, flowers--at the base of a favorite tree, etc.

Some of the more cloistered type Wiccans still assume that "Pagan" means "potential Wiccan" or "would-be Wiccan," but this misconception is corrected by any extensive contact with the larger Pagan community.

American NeoPagans sometimes learn from non-European living traditions, as well--Santeria, Voudoun, Native American ways, for example. Like a number of my Wiccan friends, I have been a guest at a number of traditional Lukumi ceremonies. Further, I know a dozen or so Caucasian NeoPagans who have joined in Native American community rituals--at least one Caucasian Pagan I know is a traditionally-taught pipe-bearer.

I wish that traditional Wicca had proper terminology to distinguish between Wiccan-oriented and non-Wiccan-oriented Pagans. At present, most of the Wiccan-oriented Pagans simply call themselves Wiccans. This sometimes upsets Wiccans who are actual initiates.

Some initiates refer to non-initiate Wiccans as "cowans," but most Pagans use "cowan" (if they use it at all--it's often considered an insult) to refer to persons with no interest in Paganism. Some try to solve the confusion by using the term "muggle" or "mundane"--neither of which is particularly complimentary, either.

Until we have better terminology, I expect the misconception that all or most "not-elsewhere-classified" Pagans are Wiccan-oriented to continue. Meanwhile, Wicca does continue to be the most visible of the Pagan paths; but I suspect that Wiccan-oriented Pagans are no longer in the majority, and the initiates are far fewer than that--say, 5% as a ballpark estimate.

Caroline Tully said...

Valerie that is a very interesting comment. I agree that I am mainly talking about Neo-Pagans in Australia. I find that 'Pagans' believe that Wiccan ritual is the 'format' for the ritual of ancient pre-Christian religions. The only ones who do not think this tend to specifically call themselves things like 'Heathens' or 'Reconstuctionists' which defines them from 'Pagans' who they see as using this Wiccan format of ritual. Otherwise it does tend to be that the term 'Pagan' or 'Neo-Pagan' equals magical-circle format attempted Wicca. This might not be so in the USA, but from my experience it is very much so here.

Sasha Chaitow said...

Thanks for a very clear and much needed clarification. I agree with you that the misconceptions most probably will continue for a while yet, but from the academic perspective it is much needed - and on a social and cultural level certain European countries could also use a clearer understanding of all of the above. Keep up the good work!