Traditional Witchcraft and Wicca
How many times have you seen a sentence start with “Witchcraft, or Wicca, is..” leaving the reader with the impression that these are one and the same thing. Such generalizations are unfair to the practitioners of both, and more than a little confusing to those who wish to learn some form of the Craft. Yet, in an age of electronic information, it becomes difficult to set the boundaries that would allow one to study witchcraft or Wicca as distinct disciplines. There are many pagan web sites that proclaim connections to Wicca, although few are truly Wiccan. I must admit that my own web site often fails to make a clear distinction.
Chat rooms and message boards are filled with arguments over whether this or that act is within the perimeters of the Wiccan Rede, yet the chatters are not Wiccan. Perhaps the argument concerns how many traditional witches are needed to call the guardians of the Watchtowers, but the well-meaning participants are unaware that traditional witches usually do not call the guardians. It’s difficult to even find terms to use that haven’t already been so blended as to obscure any divisions.
If you are a newcomer, you might ask why this is so important. When you start out to study to be a doctor, you wouldn’t want to study only psychiatry if you planned to become a surgeon. If your goal in life is to be a great violinist, would you forego violin lessons in favor of piano lessons? In the first case, both are medicine and in the second, both are music, but you certainly wouldn’t want a psychiatrist performing your appendectomy nor would you wish to sit through a violin concert performed by a pianist. You need to know where you are going in order to map out a path that will get you there. If you don’t follow some plan, some path, but just pick up a little information here and there, you’ll never get anywhere at all.
The following sections give some of the differences between Traditional Witchcraft and Wicca, though certainly not all. Before beginning, let me explain my choice of terms. The term Wicca is obvious in that its practitioners use the term to define their religion, and as it has been recognized as a religion by the US government for some years now, the term is widely accepted.
Traditional Witchcraft is a bit more difficult to justify. To some degree it is a continuation of the religion practiced by early European pagans, called witchcraft by the conquering Christians. However, as practiced today it is still a form of neo-paganism, as is Wicca. In other words, it has been revived and reinvented in modern times. It is traditional in the sense that it is not derived from the work of a single founder. The term as I use it should also not be confused with the traditional witchcraft of hereditary witches. Families of witches may indeed practice what I call Traditional Witchcraft, but the designation is not limited to such families.
In discussing the differences between these two religions, it should also be remembered that they have many things in common, particularly when contrasted to the world religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In fact, they are far more alike than they are different. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to explore the differences. These differences fall into several categories: history, beliefs, ritual, and ethics.
Most students of the Craft are at least vaguely aware of the historical origin of Wicca, but have much less precise ideas about the origin of Traditional Witchcraft. This is not particularly surprising. Wicca originated in modern times and has the advantage of being set out in written texts and even in the memories of living people. Traditional Witchcraft, on the other hand, is tied to ancient cultures and myths, and to largely unverifiable ideas about practices and beliefs.
Wicca began with the writings and teachings of Gerald Gardner in the 1930s. Gardner was initiated into the New Forest coven in England by Dorothy Clutterbuck. He published both fictional and non-fictional accounts of witchcraft, the first non-fictional book, “Witchcraft Today,” appearing after the last of the anti-witchcraft laws in England were repealed in 1954. Believing that the Craft was dying out, he dedicated himself to reviving it. In his coven, many things were secret, so his writings combined some things from the coven along with elements of ceremonial magick (Kabbala), Masonic ritual, various versions of the Craft, Celtic mythology, eastern philosophies, Egyptian ideologies, and even fictional ideas from mystical works along the lines of Lovecraft and Hubbert. The elements (earth, air, fire, water) which form an important part of Wiccan ideology are from Classical Greece. Gardner was clearly a learned man to combine diverse philosophies and religions in such a way that it not only stopped the decline of the Craft, but led to the powerful and influential religion that Wicca is today.
Gardner’s students had an important role to play in the evolution and spread of Wicca. Doreen Valiente added the poetic quality to many of the rituals that have been passed down. Others whom Gardner initiated took the new practices to distant lands, while still others branched off forming their own traditions such as the Alexandrian tradition begun by Alex Sanders. In America, many new traditions appeared, among them Dianic witchcraft and the faerie traditions, both of which are further from Gardnerianism than the direct descendents, but still clearly influenced by Gardnerian Wicca.
What we’re calling Traditional Witchcraft has an older history than Wicca in some ways, but a much less well-defined one. Witchcraft has been around since the beginning of mankind, long before people could write about it. Our ancestors did leave a few clues such as goddess statues and drawings, but not much can be learned about the nature of their beliefs and practices. Anthropologists surmise that primitive cultures of modern times have at least a passing resemblance to the long dead cultures of the past, and nearly all have some form of witchcraft or magic. However, the witchcraft practiced by most neo-pagans today is clearly of European origin, and even the most traditionally minded witches rarely try to trace the origin of their practice back further than the Middle Ages.
We do know a few things about these times. The native peoples throughout Europe believed in spirits or gods, usually associated with the Earth, Sun, and Moon, and they saw their lives and the lives of the gods as having a cyclical pattern, following the yearly cycle of seasons. The latter part is typical of native peoples everywhere. When one lives by agriculture or hunting and gathering, knowledge, and if possible, control of the seasonal forces of Nature are vital to existence. Thus, the development of a religion in which the seasons are recognized and celebrated and through which one might attempt to control the more violent and destructive aspects of Nature is quite understandable.
Most of our knowledge of European witchcraft comes from the writings of Christian conquerors and priests. In fact, it was the Christians who first called the practice witchcraft. Before the invasion there was no need to give the religion a name. It was simply what all people were brought up to believe. Some specialized roles existed with special names, though the names reflect the language of the region rather than a common system of belief.
Christians suppressed the native religion, in part, by adopting many of their rituals and customs. Yule became Christmas and Oester became Easter, and all became a part of Christian tradition. However, not all pagans abandoned their beliefs when they “became” Christians. Many of the practices simply went underground and were passed from generation to generation in families. Since most people could neither read nor write, these oral traditions were the only means of keeping the knowledge alive. Without written records, we know very little of these ancient traditions. The records we do have are often distorted, having been written by priests of the inquisition or taken from the inquisitions records themselves.
That isn’t to say that we know nothing of Traditional Witchcraft. A little knowledge trickled down and scholars often preserved the mythologies of conquered peoples. Archaeological evidence helps a little too. The neo-pagan revival has attempted to recapture the spirit of the ancient religion, if not its actual practices. Be a little skeptical of those who profess to practice the Old Ways, unless they recognize that they are reinventing those ways rather than reviving them.
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.