A Witch By Any Other Name
It took more than twenty years before I first ran across the notion that Witchcraft and Wicca were not the same thing. I don't remember where I first read it, but I do remember feeling bemused at such an assertion, and assumed the author had failed to do adequate research into the origins of the word "witch". I also assumed I'd heard the last of it. I assumed wrong!
Over the years, I've seen this sentiment turning up more and more, in conversations, in online discussions and websites, and even in published works on Witchcraft. It is often stated with such conviction that one might conclude it is the very least one needs to know on the subject. The author is usually at pains to convey the distinction that Wicca designates a religion, whereas Witchcraft is merely the practice of magic. In recent years, I have come across three further amplifications: The first is that some groups identify themselves as practicing Wicca exclusively, as a religious or spiritual path. As such, they do not hold with the more "debased" practice of Witchcraft or other magic! The second is that some groups claim that Witchcraft predates Wicca (which they apparently believe was invented by Gerald Gardner) and is therefore more "authentic". The third is that only practitioners who are in a lineal descent from Gardner or one of his covens may use the word Wicca to describe their tradition. All others would have to default to the word Witchcraft for their praxis.
Needless to say (or is it?), this so-called "distinction" between Witchcraft and Wicca came as a huge surprise, and a bit of a shock, to those of us who embarked upon this path back in the 1960s and '70s. Although the term Wicca was known (as the origin of the word Witch), it was seldom used. We were Witches, pure and simple. And we practiced Witchcraft, or sometimes "the Craft", or (based on a popular but incorrect etymology) "the Craft of the Wise", or "the Old Religion". But nobody practiced "Wicca". Even Gardnerians called themselves Witches, typically modified by others to Gardnerian Witches. On the rare occasion when the word Wicca did come up, it was used interchangeably with Witchcraft. Most often, it was when someone was trying to dodge the issue. Potential father-in-law: "So what is this weird cult my daughter says you're into?" Boyfriend (blood draining from face): "Uhhhhh..... OH! I think you must mean Wicca? yeah, that's it... Say, how about those Dodgers?"
The attempt to make a distinction between the spiritual, devotional, or celebrational side of our religion, and the more utilitarian use of ritual and ceremony to effect desired changes in our world, would never have occurred to us. One of the principle tenets of Witchcraft is that the spiritual and material sides of life interpenetrate one another and cannot be meaningfully separated. To attempt to do so is to encourage the sort of Neo-Platonic dualism that has bedeviled our Western society for centuries and led to, among other things, the demonizing of sex and the body, and disdain for our environment. In fact, any attempt to separate Wicca from Witchcraft, the religious practice from the magical practice, is not only historically misguided, but politically dangerous. It plays us directly into the hands of our detractors. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The first question to tackle is where this idea came from. It clearly wasn't there in the 1960s. Nor can it be found in the writings of the 1970s. In fact, an unambiguous reference to this idea does not occur until the late1980s! So the first thing to realize is that this notion is of far more recent vintage than most people would believe. Books about Witchcraft (such as Sybil Leek's Diary of a Witch, in which she speaks of Witchcraft as a religion) began to be published frequently from the 1960s onward, yet they used the word Wicca quite sparingly. In fact, the first popular book to use the word Wicca in the title did not appear until 1988! This was Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Had this title appeared in bookstores in the '60s or '70s, the most likely reaction, even from Witches themselves, would have been "Huh?!" They would have recognized the word, but would have wondered why such an obscure term should have been preferred to a common one. Not coincidentally, Scott Cunningham was among the first writers to claim there is a difference between Wicca and Witchcraft.
But is there really a difference? In point of fact, "wicca" and "witch" are the same word. This cannot be overstated because few people today believe it. Nonetheless, it is true. Wicca is simply the earlier form of the word witch. Proof of this can easily be found in the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary. The O.E.D. (as it is known by scholars) is the highest court of appeals for questions of etymology. "Witch" comes from the Saxon word "wicca". That is a noun with a masculine ending, and (hold on to your pointy hats!) it should properly be pronounced "witch'-ah", not "wick'-ah"! In the Saxon tongue, nouns had either masculine or feminine endings, depending on their referents. The feminine form was "wicce", properly pronounced "witch'-eh". Note the same word was applied to both males and females (no 'warlocks' here!), with only the ending changed. As the word evolved into modern English, the gender ending was dropped, leaving us with a word that is pronounced "witch", and ultimately spelled that way.
When you consider that the Saxon "cc" was pronounced "tch", it becomes easier to understand how the modern word "witch" is derived from the Old English "wicca", and how, ultimately, they are the same word. To say that they are different words, with a different provenance, and different meanings, is to ignore these simple facts. While we're at it, here's one more surprise: the word "wiccan", although typically used by modern Witches to modify a noun ("This is a Wiccan ceremony."), is not an adjective. It's a plural noun. One wicca, two wiccan. That's the masculine plural ending, obviously. The feminine plural form would be "wiccen" (rhymes with bitchin'). ;) Although in modern English, the "s" or "es" plural ending is the most common, the "an" or "en" plural is not unknown, the most obvious example being child > children.
So how is it that Wicca came to be seen as distinct and separate from Witch, in both provenance and meaning? One might speculate that Gerald Gardner himself played a role. Not only did Gardner revive and popularize the craft of the witch, he also revived and popularized the older Saxon form of the word, wicca. In doing so, however, he spelled it with only one "c", rendering it as "wica" in his writings. This tended to undermine the correct "tch" pronunciation of the original "wicca", and thus to obscure its obvious connection with the word "witch". Further, it may have encouraged the now common pronunciation of "wicca" as "wick'-ah", an entirely new critter in our English lexicon. This criticism of Gardner's spelling may actually be too harsh considering "wicca" dates to a time before dictionaries or standardized orthography were invented.
Incidentally, there are some authors today who are so convinced that Gardner invented modern Wicca, or Witchcraft (as opposed to simply reviving it), that they also mistakenly believe that he invented the word "wicca" itself! (Even more amusing, an article on a well-known Wiccan website recently claimed that Selena Fox invented the word Wicca in the 1960s!) Again, anyone who takes the trouble to do a modicum of research will discover the antiquity of the word. According to the O.E.D. (and as noted by Doreen Valiente), the oldest extant appearance of the word "wicca" can be found in the Law Codes of Alfred the Great, circa 890 C.E. Alfred was a Christian and zealous about converting everyone under his rule to his faith. Those who followed the pre-Christian "superstitious" practices of their Pagan ancestors were called Wiccan, whether they were Alfred's own countrymen, or the Celtic people in the areas Alfred was conquering. What did the Celts themselves call these people, in 890? Not Wiccan, because that was the Saxon word for it. Very probably, they used some form of the modern word "druid". That being the case, we have a scenario dating back over a thousand years, where the word "Witch" was applied to people who called themselves "Druid". This is one reason I have always believed that Druidism is one of the tributaries (and a large one!) of modern Witchcraft. (This will no doubt give hissy-fits to all those authors who have written Wicca-Isn't-Celtic articles.)
"A difference that makes no difference is not a difference."
-- Ambassador Spock
Document Copyright © 1983 - 2009 by Mike Nichols.
Permission is given to re-publish this document only as long as no information is lost or changed, credit is given to the author, and it is provided or used without cost to others. Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike Nichols.
First of all, many thanks to the literally hundreds of you who took the time and trouble to email me following the publication of this article at The Witches' Voice web site. To my great shock and surprise, about 80% of that response was supportive. (Of course, maybe those who disagreed with my views were less inclined to write.) Of the remaining 20%, three questions turned up with such regularity that I thought I'd better address them in an addendum here.
Many of my correspondents seemed to think the words "witchcraft" and "magic" are synonyms. Hence, they would ask, "Well if Witchcraft=Wicca, what do you call someone who practices magic, and yet is not Wiccan? Or a Witch?" Oddly enough, I call them magicians. Which seems kind of self-evident to me. Using the word "witchcraft" as a synonym for "magic" is linguistically quite recent. For example, the first occurrence of using the word "witchdoctor" to describe an African tribal shaman wasn't until the 1860s! So I restrict the use of the word-group Witch/Witchcraft/Wicca/Wiccecraeft, to northwestern Europe, where it originated and had its original referents. When I find magic being practiced in other cultures, I call it magic. Although my true preference is to call it by its own native word, whether Voudoun, Santeria, or whatever.
Many people wrote to insist that they practice magic in a non-religious way. (Many cited ceremonial magicians as a good example of this –although ceremonial magicians are awfully fond of invoking archangels!) In my article, I have argued that it is nearly impossible to practice magic in a non-religious way. Bear in mind that I am using the word "religion" in its most universal sense, as a scholar of comparative religion uses it. Folk religion does not require the worship of (or even the belief in!) a god or goddess. Simply to honor your ancestors by perpetuating their ways of doing magic would qualify most Family Traditions as "religious" from an Eastern perspective. About the only way one could do magic in a "non-religious" way is to make it up out of whole cloth! But even then, I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that one would end up "borrowing" symbols from one's cultural background, and that takes us back to "religion" again.
Finally, some practitioners of traditional British Witchcraft wrote to say they avoid the use of the word "Wicca" because it represents, to them, a Gardnerian-influenced, and diluted version of what they themselves practice. I sympathize with this concern and can only say that the word "Wicca" belongs to us traditionalists just as much as the word "Witch" does, because it is ultimately the same word, and it was there first. If those who dilute our praxis have tried to make the word "Wicca" uniquely their own, then it is high time we re-claimed it!
I hope this answers a few of the objections raised against my original article, and perhaps articulates some of the unspoken assumptions that undergirded it.
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