Many people who are new to the world of neo-pagan religions can often find this confusing. It can be especially so because:
* Someone can be more then one at a time and usually is.
* Being one does not necessarily mean you are the others.
* People often, throughout their journey, move from one to another.
* Sometimes there are differences in what a group chooses to call themselves (the terms ‘heathen’ vs. ‘pagan’ is an example of this).
Also, there is the “call yourself whatever you want, regardless of what you actually believe” movement within paganism, which doesn’t help things. People are against labels. I would say the problem isn’t so much the labels as what we do with the labels. Do we limit people’s experiences and put them down due to labels? Then there’s a problem. Do we simply use it to say “Oh, so we have some idea of the commonality of belief and experience you have with other people, and we’re going to use this to help us understand and learn?” Then I don’t think we do have a problem and in fact, the lack of labeling might work against us creating community and knowledge and growth.
Below, I list the three terms, what they mean and what the differences and similarities are between them.
Pagan, a term deriving from the classical Latin meaning “rustic” or “rural”, and turned into a derogatory term by Christians. And there are lots of different definitions as to what modern paganism means. But a generally accepted one would be “a polytheistic, panentheistic, or pantheistic nature-venerating religion.” Under this umbrella term falls Wicca, Druidry, many of the Reconstructionist religions (religions that seek to practice the religion of an ancient pantheon as close to the original practices as possible), devotional polytheism, and many that would not place themselves under any of those titles but simply venerate nature and worship/reverence the old gods. A fairly complete list of modern neo-pagan movements is here. Pagans of any devotional flavor can and do practice magick, but you do not have to practice magick to be pagan nor do you have to be pagan to practice magick (which we’ll get to in a minute).
Wicca: Wicca is a religion that was started in the 1950s by a man named Gerald Gardener, who combined elements of pre-Christian worship and religious traditions, Western occultism, and witchcraft into what we now know as the Wiccan religion. It has grown and evolved from there, and many from Doreen Valiente to Scott Cunningham have helped shape Wicca into what we know it as today. When Gardener started, Wicca was a coven and tradition-based religion that one must be initiated into by another Wiccan; now today, the solitary eclectic Wiccan is probably the predominant one. That is not to say that Wicca doesn’t have ancient roots. Many of its practices and philosophies, indeed, are rooted in ancient, pre-Christian worship. But many of them are created or modernized for our needs today.
Wicca has probably four main parts to its belief structure. 1. Worship/veneration of a God and Goddess, who are considered equal; 2. veneration for nature; 3. the practice of witchcraft/magick, and 4. a positive morality, with a belief in harming none. Within even those four, there is a lot of wiggle room for individual belief and diversity, but that is the bare bones of the Wiccan religion. For example, there are some Wiccans who choose not to practice magick. They still acknowledge it as part of the religion; it just is a craft they are choosing not to engage with. Because witchcraft is a practice and not a belief per se, and because they are still holding to the other beliefs, and even the belief in witchcraft/magick, they are still within Wiccan philosophy and theology. However, someone who claims to be Wiccan but doesn’t believe in harming none has gone outside of the Wiccan religion. That is a deal-breaker,
Without those four, what you have is not Wicca, but something else. There’s nothing wrong with it being something else, but it is something else.
Witchcraft: This is probably the one that is the hardest to nail down. Most people agree that witchcraft is something you do; it is not a religion in itself- notice I said most people. There are some who would say witchcraft in itself is their religion; that it is how they reverence the Divine and how they work with it. But most people agree that witchcraft is exactly what its name states- a craft. And being a craft, it is accessible to anyone. And that being the case, people have drastically different opinions as to where the powers that are accessed in witchcraft come from. Some say the energy comes from the Divine. Others believe the energy used in witchcraft is a neutral power, kind of like electricity, that you can plug into, that it is the combined energy of every living thing and that it doesn’t have any sort of sentience. And secular or agnostic witches might believe that you are using forces that science just fully has not explained or understood yet, maybe like ones explained in quantum physics. And then, of course (because we are talking about paganism, after all) there are people who believe more then one of these explanations, or explanations not listed here. But all these explanations have one thing in common- witchcraft is something you do. That is why my article on here was titled “Can you be a Christian Wiccan” and not “Can you be a Christian witch?” Because you can be a Christian witch, contrary to Christian teaching as that is. Christians can practice witchcraft. Jews can practice witchcraft. People who don’t subscribe to any religious belief at all can practice witchcraft.
Modern traditional witchcraft and other forms of witchcraft have had a great deal of growth, and because in part of the “everything under the sun can be Wicca if you want it to”, and in part because of the Wiccan commitment to harming none, Wiccan witchcraft is often seen by those practitioners as “Witchcraft lite” or “watered down witchcraft”. This is a shame, because all of the same techniques used by traditional witchcraft practitioners are available to Wiccans, just as they are to members of any other religion who also identify as modern traditional witches. As for harming none, it concerns me when people see harming none as a weakness, that you have to fight evil with evil. Evil can only be overcome by good.
So, with all those definitions, this is where a lot of people get confused. All Wiccans are pagans, but not all pagans are Wiccan. All Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccan. And not all witches are pagan, but non-Wiccan pagans can be witches. Maybe a more familiar analogy would help explain it. All Catholics are Christians, but not all Christians are Catholic, just like all Wiccans are pagan, but the reverse is not the case. And not all Christians are European, but Europeans can be Christians. But so can non-Europeans, just like non-pagans can be witches. I hope this has helped clear up some of the confusion for those of you just beginning to learn about these religions. This is not meant to be a stopping point, but merely a directional sign to lead you on the way to getting more information in the way that you want to go.