Defining #Pagan

Defining Pagan
by: Kerry Watson

I have a question for the list… I’m having a hard time figuring out the differences between Pagans, Wiccans, and Witches etc. Could you PLEASE tell me, in detail if possible, what each means and how they are different from one another???

A good, well-written question. The answer becomes difficult since these definitions remain in flux, despite highly charged efforts to isolate and rigidify these words and their meanings, both from within and without the Pagan movement. Thus, the first answer to your question comes in the form of a question itself:

Exactly who does the asking and why?
According to some Christian fundamentalists, for example, any religious practice not in strict conformance with their particular slant on Christianity rates as Satanism, including other forms of mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., let alone the sometimes non- or even anti-Christian Paganism, Witchcraft, Wicca, etc., however well- or ill-defined. According to different Pagan groups, however, the division between one or another gets more specific, but the actual delineation varies from group to group and even from individual to individual.

For the purposes of simplification, as well as out of respect for an individuals’ right to their own reality, self-identification ought to emerge as the best perspective from which to approach this question. The advantage of this perspective lies in the dynamism and flexibility of the definition, which also arises as its chief disadvantage in that the definitions you may get from a witch or a Pagan may confuse you far more than the original question. As ‘they’ say: “Ask five Pagans one question and you get seven answers.”

Even so, the following guidelines ought to help describe some of the more distinct aspects of these words. And please remember that these words overlap considerably, as well us shift constantly by context and cultural nuance. In general, witchcraft refers primarily to the survival, revival, reconstruction or (according to some) utter fabrication of any of several forms of prehistoric and later artistic, magickal and religious praxes derived, however incompletely, from generally European indigenous cults and folkways.

Some witches conceptualize witchcraft as an inspired religious path that they consider as more or less equal to any other religious path. Some forms of organized, religious witchcraft, including Wicca, feature many aspects of any other organized religion, including staid dogma; moral, ethical and aesthetic directives; even international organization and official recognition by governments. The people closely involved with this kind of witchcraft generally seek to restrict the use of the word ‘witch’ to fit their definition, for obvious reasons. (Most modern witchcraft organizations devote a good amount of their resources to what they call anti-defamation, which more or less translates into seeking to control the meaning of the word and its cultural context.)

Some witches have a broader context or even non-religious beliefs about witchcraft. They consider ‘the Craft’ as a practical series of exercises that assist their attainment of theurgic or thaumaturgic goals, and, in general, improve one’s life. In this way, witchcraft becomes isomorphic with yoga or self-help programs. Indeed, many people practice yoga or self-help programs synergistically with witchcraft or actually create syncretisms. (The Frost’s School of Wicca, with its Tantric emphasis, comes quickly to mind.)

Some people also define witchcraft, rather improperly I think, as any loose association of magickally intended beliefs or actions. These loose definitions often get applied to a wide spectrum of regional, cultural or aesthetic artifacts or acts ranging from divination, simple charms, folk medicine and maxims, to organized Satanism who’s proponents often refer to their female congregates as witches, much to the consternation of other proponents which seek to distance themselves from Satanists.

Witchcraft, like many other words involving magick, also gets improperly used to describe elaborate and/or malevolent non- linear foolishness intended to create effect, or, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, “any sufficiently advanced technology” which does not yield to a rationalist understanding. (Interesting to compare this definition with Crowley’s definition of magick…)

Generally, the word Wicca refers to that particular “survival, revival, reconstruction or (according to some) utter fabrication” espoused and codified by Gerald Gardner, a mid-century occultist who lent his name — and his quirks — to the most organized and widespread form of modern witchcraft, Gardnerian Wicca.

The word Wicca comes from the ancient Germanic (Anglic) roots from which we get the modern German wiehan, ‘to consecrate, ‘ and the English ‘victim, ‘ ‘someone killed in a religious ritual, ‘ and winds up as specifically referring to the ‘role of a Priestess’ with wicce referring to the role of a Priest. The word ‘wizard’ comes from similar roots, as does ‘wicked.’ Some etymologists connect the word with ‘wicker’ and promote the notion of weaving, as in the three Fates weaving destiny or as in spell weaving. Some connect it with the Indo-European woid, weid, wid, ‘to see’ from which we get ‘video, ‘ ‘witness, ‘ and ‘wit, ‘ thereby conceptualizing Wicca as a form of seeing or wisdom.

Whatever its lineage, Wicca has most commonly come to mean a form or derivative of the religion and practice codified by Gardner. The related word Wiccan serves both as noun: a practitioner of Wicca; and as an adjective: relating to or specifically belonging to Wicca, as in ‘a Wiccan Priestess.’

Pagan has a much more colorful and instructive derivation, for with it, the etymologist can trace a tragic history of Europe’s indigenous peoples at the hands of Empire builders, unearthing new meanings as the word evolves in an imperial context. Ultimately, the word derives from the pre-Latin pagus ‘to fix’ which meant ‘something stuck in the ground as a landmark’ and from which we get the English words page, pale, and pole which refer to fixing sticks into the ground. Other words come from this root: pact and peace, both of which come from agreements made at such a marker, or about the positioning of such markers, as in a boundary. Also, peasant derives directly from Pagan through the French and holds many similar connotations to this day.

Many scholars construe the fixed marker as the central meeting stone of a settlement since the Latin word pagi emerged to mean ‘rural area’ and ‘village, ‘ and since the Latin paganus came to mean ‘country dweller’ or ‘one who lived where they meet around standing sticks’ — ‘from the sticks?’

Other scholars point to the word cult, which descends from the Indo-European quel, quol which means to ‘move around or turn around [a fixed place]’ from which we the English cycle and wheel. The word later took two semantic paths: ‘inhabiting a place’ and ‘making a wild place suitable for crops.’

Drawing from the etymology of cult and pagan, we can see how the words might refer to the ancient practice of gathering in circles around fixed poles: the May Pole ritual, Arthur’s Round Table, and the cosmos revolving around central Tree of Life motifs from Celtic, Nordic, Jewish and African cultures serving as only a sampling of the many notable survivals.

The original ‘circle around the marker’ ritual has critical and obvious festal, ludic, and ritual prominence for any nomadic, paleolithic peoples — something of an Ur TAZ, if you will. Consider how nomadic peoples knew where to trade, share, and celebrate with other nomadic peoples. And let’s not swallow that old shibboleth about paleolithic nomadic peoples living in such fear of each other that they welcomed the specialized warrior caste who lived off the oldest con in the book, the protection racket. Any intelligent reading of what little ancient history survived the Christian book burnings delivers a vivid picture of nearly universal hospitality and cooperation which disintegrated under the pressures of imperial expansion and the conversion of wilderness into agricultural lands — a conversion as much religious as functionalist — usually as a result of brutally enforced labor. (See Kropotkin, or even Calvin Luther Martin’s study the pre- and post-Columbian Native Americans. Both, highly recommended.)

When the agricultural revolution occurred in the Neolithic and early metal ages, evolving its specialized priest/warrior/worker castes and forest-hating urbanization — a viral culture which must expand at the peril of other cultures or perish, and which necessarily relies on the forced labor of captives and the forced impregnation of women — it quite necessarily denigrated the remaining nomadic peoples and their wisdom as provincial or bumpkinish, a notion which exists today in much of the civilized world.

And so pagan originally meant ‘one who lives out in the (and with the?) sticks and/or conforms to the practices of the country bumpkins’ — not too far from the feel of the third definition of witchcraft, eh?

Similarly, the word heathen comes from the Germanic heide which means ‘heath dweller’, ‘heath flower’ (yes, dear, like Heidi) and also implies ‘country bumpkin’ and, in a modern context, ‘evil occultist, ‘ particularly in the wake of the post-War reaction to the Nazi’s neo-paganism. In modern English, of course, the word ‘heathen’ means ‘evil occultist’ and has lost its other ‘country bumpkin’ meanings (wherefore we have ‘hillbilly’ and ‘yokel’). But one can still find old guest houses in the Germanic nations that feature signs that say, in translation, “Christian, Jew and Heathen: All welcome to eat and drink, ” denoting some older cultural standard which recognized Paganism as a religious (and, in those days, political) path distinct from Christianity and Judaism.

In the later Roman times, the word Pagan came to mean ‘non- Christian, non-Jew, ‘ in other words, a religious path distinct from the more urban Jehovism. But it also stood distinct from the stratified Olympian polytheism so oft adored by modern Pagans — and labeled Hellenic by the Romans, who differentiated these practices from Paganism. Hellenism emerged as a highly structured, urbanized syncretism, an artifact of imperial agriculturism, which warrants a very different treatment from the earlier Neolithic practices with which it contrasted and which it ultimately enslaved.
I hope I haven’t made the historicity of this explanation seem in any way cut and dried. Many, many permutations, innovations, admixtures and experiments arose throughout the nightmare of history. And I ought to remind that all of our ancestors did stuff that would get us kicked off of public transportation today. I’ve deliberately used broad strokes here to develop a notion of religious and cultural currents that must have some contrast to maintain their meaning. And so, I consider it fair and roughly accurate to define Paganism as typified by nomadic, festal, paleolithic, horticultural, intuitive, shamanic and, more or less egalitarian themes at right angles to Hellenism which contrasted with urban, work-oriented, metal-using, agricultural, rationalist, priestly, and hierarchical themes. Both currents survive today and tracing their various miscegenations can serve as a life’s work. (Not mine, however.)

And then, regardless of Christ’s historicity, enter Christianity. Of course, the early Christians looked and acted a lot like our modern Pagan movement — a notion that fills me with dread from time to time. Like modern Pagans, early Christians consisted largely of roughly stable, lower-middle class urbanites that styled themselves as not-too revolutionary, given over to ecstatic love, fond of nookie and only too willing to fight against unbeatable odds. These early Christians considered themselves at variance with the Roman mainstream and cultivated a sense of persecution, which supplied adventure, identity, and a common object of hatred, all very effective strategies in developing social and political movements. As the persecuted Christians eventually gained power over their persecutors through their appeal to the military arm of the Roman Empire — a triumph sealed at the first Council of Nicea when Jesus got elected God after a run-off with the Persian ‘also ran’ Sol Mithra — they turned to find new enemies in order to retain the advantages of group hatred.

During this time, the largely urban Christians had little regard, and felt very little threat from ‘the country bumpkins, ‘ many of whom paid taxes to Rome and posed little problem except that they didn’t like getting conquered. The country dwellers tended to avoid the Christian penchant for organized warfare while the Christians strongly identified with the notion of ‘soldiers for Christ.’ (And let’s not forget that soldiery remained one of the few methods for social mobility in the Rome Empire.) So, the word ‘pagan’ came to mean, derisively, ‘non-Christian’ and more popularly ‘non-combatant’ or, what we would call today, a ‘weakling’ or ‘civilian’ which ironically derives from the word for ‘city dweller.’

All this changed a few hundred years later when organized Christianity used its foothold in European culture to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the remainder of the known world under the rubric of manifest destiny. Over the next few centuries, Christians would seek to eliminate (or co-opt) every trace of the earlier Neolithic Pagan currents and the agrarian Hellenic currents, which they simple-mindedly lumped together as ‘non-Christian’ and therefore ‘anti-Christian’ and ultimately ‘Satanic.’

Again, this didn’t happen overnight and the story has many, many permutations and eddies. Gnosticism, for example, easily fits into the model of Neolithic Pagan revivalism with their festal, egalitarian insistence on first-hand knowledge of the divine. In turn, many movements arose from the ashes of organized Christianity’s attempts to squelch all opposition. Certainly the Christian purge of homosexuality — synonymous with ‘heresy’ for many centuries — arises from the agenda or differentiating from other currents where same sex unions had sacred sanction and support, e.g., Paganism and Hellenism.

A horrifying few centuries later and we come to the present where the word ‘pagan’ means ‘devil-worshipper’ to almost every group of people except for scholars and reconstructionists, both of which seek to define ‘pagan’ in their own ways. The scholars define ‘pagan’ as ‘the religion of indigenous peoples’ and reconstructionists define ‘pagan’ as ‘whatever they heck we’ve managed to cobble together this week.’

Not that I intend to make more than the usual fun of anybody’s religion with this statement. If anything, I applaud the enormous devotion to scholarship and conscious experimentation I find in modern Paganism and consider myself a part of it. So long as we remain flexible, we retain our chance at survival — an important lesson learned many times over by our spiritual forebears.

The modern Pagan movement, which includes the modern witchcraft movement (e.g., all witches are Pagans but not all Pagans are witches), has certain identifiable cultural traits that separate it from the mainstream. One such trait, anti-Christianity, arguably makes modern Paganism a cousin to organized Satanism. Indeed, some Satanists claim that Paganism and Satanism occupy two different positions on a spectrum of anti- Christianity. I’d argue against this, however, with the observation that Paganism, in essence, seeks to create something of its own, in Hegelian terms, its own thesis, even if this comes to little more than a dewy-eyed reconstruction of Rousseau’s noble savagery. Satanism, however, essentially seeks to destroy something, or at best, to create something in opposition to an extant force. It emerges as a literal anti-thesis. Indeed, organized Satanism, per se, never even existed before Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Malificarum which gave medieval churchmen — the only literate class in the Dark Ages — a user’s manual, so to speak, on how to practice Satanism, which some found more attractive than Christianity. And so, much as I understand the reasons for interpenetration and cultural borrowing between the two, Paganism seeks a different vector than Satanism.

The actual vector Paganism seeks, however, gets hard to pin down. Some modern feminist scholars have developed quite a few remarkable notions of matriarchal and partnership paradigms that, they suggest, might provide a better way of life if only we could force people to adopt them. Some of these notions, when watered down, have found a constituency among angry women who seem content to dress Jehovah in drag and call their ‘turn about’ fair play, extreme only in the extent of their bitterness as Nietzsche might say. Various heresies emerge from this central equation of righting ancient wrongs with modern pogroms, but posit the victim as a different grouping than ‘all women’ and substitute instead another victimized group or notion, e.g., the planet, in radical environmentalist spirituality.
Other vectors in modern Paganism involve various reconstructionisms that posit one particular locus on the metaphysical playing field as superior to others. Still others seek to understand the wisdom of the ancients through the gloss of modern reality-tunnels. Modern Paganism also hosts a number of joke religions, which embrace absurd doctrines with often brilliantly iconoclastic results. Still other Pagans have developed lifestyles and attendant philosophies that one might easily and naturally associate with the ancient hunters and gatherers who once communed around fixed poles to eat, and dance, and sing.

As you can see, the word Pagan has such a broad meaning that it gets very difficult to deliver a concise description of its boundaries — although I might suggest a review of the Pagan Foundations section of the first draft of the Universal Federation of Pagans as a good start. (I can post this privately or publicly.) The problem with defining any ongoing movement lies in the unfortunate habit of codified definitions that emerge as prescriptive rather than descriptive, a practice that leads to linguistic territorialism and, if history serves as a guide, ultimately to warfare over definitions. This has already occurred in the context of defining modern Paganism!

Personally, I don’t think that we know enough yet to decide precisely the limits of Paganism and I advocate that we seek to create meaning for the word by what we Pagans manage to do with it.

by: Kerry Watson –



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