THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN WICCA AND TRADITIONAL WITCHCRAFT

First, it is important to clarify a few things about the state of pagan/heathen affairs at the dawn of this new millenium. As of this writing, the most prolific tradition of witchcraft (in the United States, at least) is the tradition of Wicca, begun by Gerald Gardner in the late 1930's. While many non-Wiccan witches today may have a problem with the rampant popularity of this tradition and the subsequent masking of their own beliefs and customs, the rise of Wicca has given many of us a lot to be thankful for.

Even if Traditional Witches do not subscribe to the same customs that Gardner set down in his novel, High Magic's Aid (1949), and his non-fiction work entitled Witchcraft Today (1953) we cannot deny that his passion for witchcraft resulted in more widespread acceptance of craft practices.

While many Traditional Witches claim that they need no acceptance because they never intended their practices or beliefs to become public, this can be a dangerous attitude because it suggests that we have forgotten how many people have been killed throughout history because of their "hidden" religious beliefs. Any assistance we can get in making those practices we group loosely under the heading of "witchcraft" more acceptable and less frightening to the general public is in all our best interests. Wicca with its public and undeniably benign doctrines has presented a palatable image of witchcraft to the non-pagan/non-heathen societies we live in.

Without Gardner or his life's work, we might not have the religious protection that inevitably springs from such widespread growth. So while many articles that cite the differences between Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft do so with contempt for Wicca, this article holds no such disrespect.

Wicca IS witchcraft. It may be only one branch on a tree with many limbs, but it is as much a tradition of the craft as any other regardless of its historical background or how Gardner chose to organize it. If we are going to survive as pagans/heathens in a predominately non-pagan/non-heathen society, we all have to stop bickering amongst ourselves and try to work at understanding AND respecting our differences.

On the same note, I can fully understand why so many non-Wiccan witches are distressed by the endless supply of Wiccan books and web pages available today. A GREAT number of these sources completely disregard any tradition of witchcraft that is not Wiccan. This can be especially frustrating for non-Wiccan witches trying to teach and guide new students on traditional paths when they face constant questions as to why they aren't "doing it right" like all those authors said it HAD to be done.

For those of you who have had almost as much as you can take of your tradition being pegged as "wrong" because you don't follow the Rede, the Rule of Three or some other Wiccan tradition, PLEASE BE PATIENT. A great many Wiccans are catching on that their majority status (and all the inadvertent forgetfulness that goes with it) is hurting their non-Wiccan brothers and sisters. Some are legitimately surprised to learn that people follow non-Wiccan traditions of witchcraft and once they realize their error, they are eager to learn more about how other traditions function.

In sum, you will not find many people you would consider "witches" who want to discriminate against your tradition. The confusion no doubt stems more from a lack of information on non-Wiccan traditions than downright disrespect. And, many Traditional Witches are the first to admit that they are not the least bit eager to share their ways with the New Age world. So what can we really expect? Wiccans are very often content to discuss their culture and theology among members of the pagan/heathen community. The rest of us can hardly blame them for not understanding our ways when so few of us are prepared to discuss them.

GENERAL DEFINITIONS

The terms "Traditional Witch" and "Traditional Witchcraft" need to be defined clearly before we proceed any further along with a discussion about the differences between Wicca and witchcraft. The word "traditional" would seem to imply that the ways of the Traditional Witch must have been handed down from family, ancestors or some other "elder" members of that tradition. This is not so. Rather, the hereditary transfer of culture, theology, practices and magick is referred to as Hereditary Witchcraft.

Hereditary Witchcraft is a subgroup of Traditional Witchcraft (Many historical traditions of the craft involve a hereditary transfer of practices and culture). However, not all Traditional Witchcraft is Hereditary. This relationship is the same as saying that: ALL Wiccans are witches, but NOT all witches are Wiccan.

For those new to pagan terminology, I will use a more mainstream example:

"ALL Baptists are Christian, but NOT all Christians are Baptists."

Rather than imply that the practices of the Traditional Witch must be handed down from others as traditions, the term "traditional" signifies at least one of the following:

1. Historic Tradition(al) Witchcraft -- As in some historically "organized" tradition of witchcraft that differs from contemporary witchcraft religions in age. (This includes the practices Gardner set down for Wicca--a relatively new tradition being only 60+ years old compared to the older traditions some of which date back to pre-Christian times.)

  • This subset of traditions can include any group from the Pellory traditions of Great Britain to the Voodoo traditions from all around the world. Their practices are definitely not Wiccan, but they are still technically considered witchcraft (even if the practitioners don't refer to them as such).

  • It does not matter what tradition one chooses to follow. If it has some historical background, then it falls into the category of Historic Traditional Witchcraft.

  • "Tradition" in this sense refers to the beliefs and practices that have their roots in historical fact.

  • The Traditional Witch is NOT expected to have received his or her information from a relative or ancestor, however. Again, this is Hereditary Witchcraft and not a necessary requirement for placement in this category. In fact, a witch can easily pick up a book and begin training on a tradition (without racial connection to that tradition) on his/her own.

  • The observance, study and practice of a certain "tradition" with as little deviation as possible from the original tenants and customs of that tradition are what make it Traditional Witchcraft.

2. (Common) Traditional Witchcraft -- This group distinguishes itself from other witchcraft groups because its utilizes the most basic and universal (as opposed to tradition-specific) ritual practices of creating change, divining the future and maintaining balance. These "bare bones" practices of witchcraft represent a common thread of witchcraft that is seen in anthropological records regardless of geographical location or time period. Some of the practices include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Divination practices of any kind

  • Basic spellcasting practices (including Natural, Spiritual or Mental Magicks)

  • Observance of Omens

  • Observance of nature and how it affects individuals

  • Acceptance or adherence to any organized or eclectic religio-pagan beliefs

Of course all of the above examples are not mandatory for placement in this category of Common Traditional Witchcraft. A Common Traditional Witch is still a witch even if she rarely (if ever) casts spells. Neither does she need to divine the future or observe her craft as a religious experience. The above customs function as tools. The goal of their use is to aid the witch in maintaining balance in her environment whether that balance is through spiritual, psychic, natural or other means. Exactly how she goes about doing this is up to her.

*NOTE: It is also possible for a witch to begin study and practice within one of the two above categories of Traditional Witchcraft and then later switch to another. For example, I have met some Common Traditional Witches who start out practicing only the most basic craft rituals including divination and spellcasting, but then switch to Historic Traditional Witchcraft when they begin study within an organized group. The reverse can also be true for a witch beginning his study with an organized group and later practicing only basic practices.

Conversely, a Traditional Witch who joins a contemporary religion and practices New Age rituals is not practicing Traditional Witchcraft (he is practicing Contemporary Witchcraft.) TW is not, however, an exclusive club that one can ever be excluded from. One can always go back to traditional ways and since contemporary and new age traditions share so much in common with historic traditions, this distinction can easily become fuzzy.

In both the above categories of Traditional Witchcraft, the degree to which the tradition is considered historically "real" enough is highly subjective. Practitioners as well as scholars should take care not to judge the historical validity of a group's tradition too harshly. Quite often a tradition's own members will hide its historical facts from the world making proper documentation difficult if not impossible. Some say this is the case with Wicca, however, countless scholars have indicated it is more appropriately categorized as a contemporary new age religion than an historical one, so the debate continues.

Similarly, the exact practices a Common Traditional Witch adopts are entirely up to her. No one person could ever be expected to adopt all the common practices of the craft even if s/he lived to be a thousand. Thus it stands to reason that the age of the witch, the time period in which s/he lives as well as his or her geographic location will all affect which of the practices s/he would be fluent in. Religious background, local culture as well as personal preferences are also important factors that affect which practices one will choose.

For example, a witch living in the Midwest United States might be highly fluent in the most basic practices of candle magick, but be completely ignorant of (and even disinterested in) the basic practices of poppet (doll) magick. A witch living in Louisiana on the other hand would likely have little difficulty citing the uses and practices involved in successfully using a (voodoo) doll to create change in his environment. And of course neither of these two witches needs to be affiliated with any particular tradition, coven or other organized group to be classified as a (Common) Traditional Witch.

In short, Common Traditional Witches are free to use whatever basic craft practices they choose. Refusing to use a specific type of magick or follow a specific theological belief system does not make a witch or her practices "wrong". One witch's meat is another witch's poison, and no one should be expected to adopt beliefs or perform rituals s/he feels are ineffectual. Common Traditional Witchcraft is by far the most eclectic branch of the craft and thus cannot be fairly criticized on this point alone.

Furthermore, the Common Traditional Witch's modest craft style should not be seen as being ill-informed or poorly read. Such austere craft practices are simply a reflection of the tradition's desire for simplicity and an "inner" as opposed to "outer" ritual focus.

Finally, Traditional Witchcraft should also be distinguished from organized, contemporary new age religions (including Wicca) that combine or adapt the practices of other traditions to form new, never before seen traditions. (The practices of Wicca are thought to have been adapted from the Ceremonial Magick of the Golden Dawn--and Aleister Crowley who was aquatinted with Gardner--as well as modern Kabbalah.) However, it must again be stressed that all new age and contemporary traditions of witchcraft are still witchcraft even though they do not fall into the category of Traditional Witchcraft.

*NOTE: This distinction is certainly not an attempt to qualify Traditional Witchcraft as superior or inferior to contemporary traditions. No tradition is inferior simply by virtue of its age. Scholars and students alike should view this categorizing of differing traditions only as a reference tool and an avenue for improved communications among pagans of different backgrounds. Proper identification is the first step to learning about traditions that differ from our own.

Coming Soon: Specific Differences in Ritual Practices