What is Old is New Again: Neo-paganism, Witchcraft, and Wicca 101

Before we get too deep into this writing series, it would probably be helpful to breakdown the terminology I’ll be commonly using. It should be noted that, from my understanding, there is no real consensus on what the absolute definitions of some of these terms are – some practitioners may disagree with the definitions listed below, but for the purposes of consistency they will be the ones I’ll be using for this series.

Probably the greatest fire hazard of an altar

Neo-Paganism

Most modern day practitioners of religions such as Wicca, Druidry, and Heathenry would refer to themselves as “Pagan” rather than “neo-pagan”. However, for the sake of this writing series and to differentiate historical paganism from modern pagan traditions, I will be using the term “neo-paganism” instead.

Again, it is difficult to settle on a universally agreed upon definition for these terms, but most neo-pagans will agree that their religions follow most of these concepts to be considered “pagan” (based on Hardman 1995, Thompson 2016):

  • Respect/Worship for Nature – this is often expressed through celebrations associated with the changing seasons (for example, Wiccans have sabbats based on the Wheel of the Year)
  • Belief in Magic and Witchcraft – this is left purposely vague as many neo-pagan religions will define “magic” and “witchcraft” differently, but this is usually expressed through various rituals and not necessarily spell work
  • Belief in a Higher Power – this point is rather contentious – although most neo-pagan religions believe in deities or some form of higher power, there has been a relatively recent movement in “Atheopaganism“.

The major religions of neo-paganism today are often characterised based on the pantheons and cultural traditions that they are based on – for example, Heathenry is a neo-pagan religion based on the Old Norse pantheon and lore.

Witchcraft

Witchcraft refers to a practice in which ritualistic activity is used for specific purposes and outcomes. This is often performed through the use of physical action (lighting a candle, creating a mixture, etc.) and heightened through sensory features (incense, meditative states, etc.). Correspondences are also used to create correlations between the actions and the intended outcomes – for example, a yellow candle anointed with a cinnamon oil may be used to invoke confidence and energy into one’s life.

Witchcraft has often been seen as a radical form of self-care and expression, given the stigma that surrounds the practice. Neo-paganism, witchcraft, and Wicca have been a haven for women and LGBTQ+ – for example, Dianic witchcraft was developed as a means of celebrating womanhood through devotion to only the Goddess. The Minoan Brotherhood is a similar tradition made for gay practitioners. Many feminist groups have taken to witchcraft as a means of communing with each other, as well (Aburrow 2015).

Modern witchcraft and Wicca is mostly based in Western traditions of folklore and magic, especially from Britain. Two major figures in the re-popularisation of the occult and witchcraft were Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner (Valiente 1989).

Wicca

Although Wiccan practice will vary, most practitioners follow several concepts that echo most other neo-pagan traditions (based on Valiente 1989, Aburrow 2015):

  • Belief in a higher power – This can either be a more abstract concept of a God and Goddess or could specifically refer to a God and Goddess from a particular pantheon (Zeus, Odin, Ra…etc.)
  • Emphasis on duality – The concept of duality is heavily emphasised through Wiccan beliefs and practices. Concepts surrounding the masculine and the feminine are equally celebrated and worshipped, with the “sacred union” (sexuality) often symbolically represented in ritual.
  • Worship of Nature – As previously mentioned, Wiccans celebrate nature through the sabbats, which follow the Wheel of the Year – this includes celebrations for Samhain, Yule, and Ostara, for example. Esbats are also celebrated, which focus on the phases of the moon. Each sabbat and esbat have certain rituals and traditions that many follow – for example, Samhain is associated with ancestor worship and divination, so many Wiccans will perform rituals that specifically honour the dead and read tarot cards.
  • Ritual and Magic Work –  Many Wiccans follow set rituals that have been practised in many covens over the years – this includes invocations to the God and Goddess, the calling of the corners (earth, wind, fire, and water), and ritualistic feasting that occurs after the main ritual is finished. Usually, Wiccans practise witchcraft, although there are some that do not, at least in the commonly referred to sense of the word. This may instead be replaced with more devotional work to the God and Goddess.

Like other neo-pagan traditions, Wicca has many variations in practice – for example, Wicca is traditionally practised in covens, with a High Priestess to carry out initiations and lead rituals, such as “creating the circle”, or in other words, creating the ritual space. However, there are also many solitary practitioners and arguably this has become more common today.

Neo-paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft have many similarities, but the most important concept they share is a strong emphasis on cultural history. They all draw from certain historical and cultural elements, such as ancient folklore and ritual. Many draw their strength and power from this sense of heritage and a feeling of belonging to a lineage that has its roots in the ancient past. As this series will later investigate, however, sometimes these histories get a bit more muddled in the translation…

References

Aburrow, Y. (2015) All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca. Avalonia.

Hardman, C. (1995) Introduction. Paganism Today. Thorsons. (p. ix-xix)

Thompson, C.S. (2016) Pagan Anarchism. Gods & Radicals Press.

Valiente, D. (1989) The Rebirth of Witchcraft. The Crowood Press.

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