There are some fundamental differences in the beliefs of traditional witches and Wiccans. It is vital that any student of the Craft understand these differences, especially if the student is still seeking a path to follow. How can you know if your path is to be Wiccan or that of Traditional Witchcraft if you have no knowledge of the beliefs associated with them?
Perhaps now is a good place to comment on the eclectic witch. All too often newcomers to the Craft grab onto that label because it seems to mean they can believe and do whatever they want without having to adhere to any particular belief or ritual system. That’s simply not the case. To say something is eclectic does mean that it is composed of elements drawn from various sources. However, there must be sources for such eclecticism in the Craft. It does not mean that you can make up your own way of doing everything, your own way of thinking, and still call it the Craft. It does not mean that you can incorporate every New Age idea, regardless of how appealing it may be to the individual, and then claim that what you do is the Craft. An eclectic witch carefully chooses a path that has elements from different witchcraft traditions, making sure that there are no contradictions or conflicts among the element chosen, and that each is well understood. There are some limits. Not only can the path not be entirely idiosyncratic, but it must be clearly pagan.
Some will argue against this, but in my opinion, it is impossible to be simultaneously Christian and a witch without sacrificing important components of one or the other. Conflicts between the two belief systems are immediately apparent, and some are impossible to resolve. Witches of whatever tradition are not monotheistic nor do they follow any revealed scripture (Torah, Gospels, Quran, Book of Mormon, etc.). There are many other conflicting elements, but that must be put aside for another essay.
It’s worth noting again that neither Wicca nor Traditional Witchcraft is traditional in the sense of strictly adhering to the beliefs and practices of our ancestors. Like it or not, this is neo-paganism, for we simply have no choice. Most likely the religion of the original European pagans was quite different, but we have arrived at the point where we need to look at the traditions being practiced today rather than the “old ways,” though with some references to the latter when possible.
The first, and I believe the most important, difference between Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft is the relationship to Deity or deities. Wiccans worship a Goddess and sometimes a God, regarding them as supreme beings. Traditional Witches do not worship any entity as their superior, though they recognize the existence of other entities. They believe in the equality of all beings in the Universe, seeing them as different, separate, but never superior or inferior. This difference is often a source of confusion. A traditional witch may speak of the god and the goddess, usually referring to the female and male aspects of Nature, and while they revere and respect Nature, they do not worship it or its representatives. A Wiccan may speak in similar terms but Wiccan rituals make it clear that the Goddess and God are seen as superior beings to be worshipped. This dualism forms the basic foundation of Wiccan theology, the necessary feminine and masculine components of creative energy. Traditional Witchcraft, however, is polytheistic and animistic, incorporating a number of spirits/deities into a meaningful whole.
Let me make this a little clearer by example. When a Wiccan calls upon the Goddess and the God in ritual, she/he means exactly that – “the” Goddess and God, the ones who appear so prominently in the mythologies that inform this belief and the rituals associated with it. The Goddess is a Triple Goddess and may be called by different names in different circumstances, but most Wiccans believe these different names and personalities are aspects of the one Goddess rather than different entities. Traditional witches, however, may call the Goddess and the God as representatives of the creative force of the Universe, but will usually call on other spirits as well, each being seen as a separate and equal entity.
In Traditional Witchcraft there is a Spirit World or Other World where these other entities reside. Most do not see this as actually separate from this world, but rather a part of it that is usually unseen. Thus, the spirits who are contacted during ritual are already there but may be conjured or evoked to facilitate communication. This is an important point in that Traditional Witches see the interaction between this world and the Other World as constant and not wholly dependent on ritual. Wiccans rely more on ecstatic ritual to obtain contact with the Goddess and to increase ones spirituality.
There are some who say that traditional witchcraft is not a religion at all, because no deities are worshipped. From a strictly anthropological standpoint, that would be a fair statement in that religion may be defined as a system of belief which includes the worship of a superior being or beings. However, to say that the practice of witchcraft lacks spirituality is simply untrue, at least among modern witches. For many witches today, it is the spiritual enlightenment offered by the practice of witchcraft that draws them to it, even if their approach to the deities is somewhat different than that found in other religions, including Wicca.
Any discussion of the gods inevitably leads to consideration of the rituals performed in connection with them. In Wicca, rituals tend to be compulsory or at least advised. One must celebrate the Wheel of the Year with its eight holy days that represent parts of the mythic cycle. Traditional Witches often observe the same days as they correspond to solstices and equinoxes, but do not relate them to a specific mythology. In Traditional Witchcraft it is the seasonal changes themselves that are honored, not the lives of gods and goddesses associated with them. Both Wiccans and Traditional Witches observe Moon phases and other natural phenomena.
The sacred circle is central to Wiccan practice. Wiccans generally create sacred space for their rituals by casting a circle, using techniques of visualization and raising energy. Placing more significance on ritual and ceremony, Wiccans create and perform beautiful rituals, filled with symbolism, to mark the seasons of the Earth and the seasons of life.
In Traditional Witchcraft, all space is sacred and all life is ceremony. When ritual or magick is performed, the Traditional Witch is likely to go to a place that has special qualities such as a stream or mountain, but practitioners also recognize that the local park or someone’s backyard is equally sacred. I’m not saying that Wiccans don’t see the Earth as sacred; they do. However, most Wiccans still cast a circle (define sacred space) before performing a ritual. These differences are often a matter of degree and emphasis.
It is often difficult for urban witches to gain any practical experience of the countryside. Perhaps the absence of daily opportunities to be in direct contact with the Nature draws so many of them to the more formal and symbolic rituals of Wicca. The separation from natural settings may also have led to the intense concern with environmental issues among both Wiccans and Traditional Witches.
No consideration of ritual in witchcraft would be complete without some discussion of magick. Magick is central to Traditional Witchcraft, whereas many Wiccans do not practice the magickal arts. However, there is a sense in which all religions use magick, as it may be defined as any attempt to effect the outcome of a given situation by supernatural means (though in Traditional Witchcraft these means are seen as natural). Prayer, for example, is a form of magick.
When practiced, the magick of Wicca tends to be more ceremonial, whereas in Traditional Witchcraft it is more practical. Herbal healing, for example, is a traditional practice which may or may not be part of a Wiccan’s custom. Also, the magick of Traditional Witchcraft may include hexes and curses without a specific rule to prevent such acts (see Ethics section).
A more important difference, however, concerns the presence or absence of spirituality in magick. Some say that magick is never spiritual. Since there are often spirits or deities involved, a better way to look at it might be to consider the relationship between the witch and the spirit in performing magick. The idea noted above in relation to defining religion is also applied to magick, that when witches work with spirits in performing magick, it is not spiritual unless the spirits are worshipped. Regarding spirits as a natural part of the witch’s environment and as equal beings in the Universe would deny any spirituality to the magick of Traditional Witchcraft. Wiccans, on the other hand, perform magick in which a goddess or god is appealed to for aid and paid homage to during the magickal act. By the previous definition, this would be seen as spiritual. I’m not at all convinced that seeing spirits as natural and enlisting their aid without worshipping them reduces the magick of Traditional Witchcraft to something that is merely practical and without a spiritual component.
Rites of passage are also an important part of the ritual structure of both Wiccans and Traditional Witches. Initiatory rites of passage are central to Wicca, at least as practiced in covens. Within each coven there is a hierarchy among the members based on the levels or degrees each member has attained, with the High Priest and Priestess at the pentacle. As a member goes through the levels, she/he learns the Mysteries from someone in authority. The degrees are determined primarily by what the witch has studied and for how long so that the hierarchy, at least theoretically, is one of knowledge.
In Traditional Witchcraft, there are usually rites of passage of some kind, though groups tend to be less hierarchical than Wiccan covens. In some cases, rituals are performed at different stages of a person’s life, while in other cases, rites may reflect the individual’s choice to dedicate herself to some aspect of the Craft. The only thing that can be said with certainty about rites of passage in Traditional Witchcraft is that they are variable, and are determined more by the specific group or individual than by a conventional structure.
Wiccan ethics is based primarily on one rule, the Wiccan Rede (advice or creed), “an it harm none, do as ye will.” A true follower of the Wiccan path will know that this does not translate into “do anything you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” A person’s “will” is the path chosen after careful reflection, not just the whim of the day. Discovering your true will is part of the path you take to spiritual enlightenment, tolerance of others, service to the Universe, and ultimately a fulfilling life. The second most important feature of Wiccan ethics is the Threefold Law, that what you do will come back to you threefold (with three times the energy). This is a karmic principle that has it’s origin in eastern religions and replaces the concept of sin and retribution found in Christianity. In other words, if you harm someone (sin), you will be repaid times three (retribution).
Traditional Witchcraft has neither the Wiccan Rede nor the Threefold Law. There is no morality test, only personal responsibility and honor. Also, there is no good or evil, only intent. Humans have the ability to make decisions and act on them, and they may choose and act with good or evil intentions. Traditional Witchcraft does not set out laws as to what actions and intentions are evil, but followers of this path take responsibility for them. In practical terms, this means that using curses, hexes, and the like are not ruled out on principle. If provoked or threatened, the Traditional Witch may act for self-preservation or the protection of family and home. These are considered honorable acts. Yet if there are negative consequences, the Traditional Witch is willing to suffer them.
A final word
I hope this essay will serve two purposes. For those of you studying the Craft and trying to learn a little about the rather confusing terminology applied to its practitioners, perhaps this will be a starting point, but only that. Don’t take what I’ve written as gospel. Many others will have a different view of these issues, but these few words may help you find the questions to ask. For those of you who saw a movie last week or read a web page somewhere, I hope it will make you think twice about calling yourself a “witch” or “Wiccan.” Without the training, knowledge, and dedication, neither designation is appropriate.
May the ancient gods guide you in whatever path you choose.