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'Pagan' is from an old Roman word meaning 'country dweller' or 'country district'. The ancient Romans used it much as more modern folk used to use the word 'hick' or 'hayseed' – a put-down because the folk of the country worshipped their old gods rather than the gods of the city. Neopagans (neo = new) have reclaimed the word and made of it one of pride, because we have chosen to worship the old gods. In fact the liklihood of there being pagans from an unbroken line to antiquity is extremely small (in spite of the claims of some), making us all neopagans. However, I will use the word 'pagan' since that is the word most people use.
Pagans do not all belong to one religion. Rather, 'pagan' is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of religions, most of which are nature based. The most widely known of those is the new religion of Wicca, but there are also Asatruar, Druids, and many more. Some people would have it that all religions that are not Christian, Muslim or Judaic are pagan religions. However, not all non-Abrahamic religions are pagan religions (Shinto, Hinduism, Vooduon, Taoism, et al).
Mostly the neopagan religions worship gods from the ancient pantheons of Western Europe, Egypt, and Greece, although there may be others.
So what is witchcraft?
The word 'witchcraft' is one with many meanings, depending on whom you talk to. To be sure, it is 'the craft of the witch', but what is a witch? In ancient times the word had very few meanings that weren't negative, and in some cultures it still is, but in most of the world today the word is being 'reclaimed' (re-interpreted would be more accurate), and those meanings are becoming more positive every day. The most well-known witches are the members of the neopagan religion of Wicca, although there are others who also claim the word – including a few whose religion itself is called Witchcraft. For the purposes of this FAQ, these modern-day witches are the ones that will be referred to when mentioned.
As already mentioned, witchcraft is the craft (practice) of the witch. For some witches this merely means a nature religion – the more pacifistic will add that it is one which teaches respect for life and tolerance of other pathways. For others it means casting spells, herbology, divination and using the powers of a witch. And there's everything in-between. There are many different beliefs covered by the term, and nearly as many ways of practicing as there are witches. In fact, there are 'witches' in almost every religion, if 'witch' is defined as a person who works magic or casts spells. This includes Judaism and Christianity. However, they each use the symbology of their own religion and in the name(s) of their own god(s) while doing so.
Are pagans witches?
Most witches are neopagan, but not all neopagans are witches. There are druids, Asatruars and Vanatruars (Germanic/Norse paganism), shamans of various sorts, wizards and others, although most of those practicing Norse paganism actually prefer to call themselves 'heathens' rather than pagans. My guess as to the reason for this preference in nomenclature is to distance themselves from the New Age (usually pacifistic) influences that plague so much of modern neopaganism.
Do pagans worship the devil?
No. There are no modern pagan religions that even believe in the existence of the Christian 'Devil' by any name whatsoever. The concept of demons and devils in several ancient pagan religions in the Far and Middle East caught the imagination of early Christian leaders as a means of keeping their straying flocks in line, then in 447 AD the Council of Toledo (Spain) adopted the Doctrine of the Devil. The common portrayal of the Devil as having red skin, a barbed tail, hooves and horns was borrowed from that of a (beneficent) Persian fertility god (red being the color of passion).
What is not commonly known is that the Christian religion itself once made use of horns as a symbol of holiness. Some early examples of Christian art, including a statue of Moses, clearly show small horns on the heads of holy figures. (Christianity also used the pentagram for several centuries.)
Some of this misinformation was perpetuated by 19th and 20th century dabblers who invented a new kind of witchcraft, not so much based on any supposed 'Old Religion' as on alchemy and High Magic. This gave us Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner, Anton LaVey, and even Helena Blavatsky. So-called 'black' magicians (those practitioners of magic whose main aim in life is to do harm) or devil worshippers could be called 'witches' as the word was known before the neopagan movement, but under the new interpretation of 'witch' as a certain type of neopagan earth/nature-worshipper, there is a notable and understandable reluctance to share that title with them. The modern witch prefers to call these people by the longer names already mentioned: black magicians and devil worshippers. Most of those invert the Christian Mass and ridicule it. In essence, they are reverse Christians, since they do believe in the Christian paradigm – they simply choose to fight it. Since modern witches and neopagans do not believe in Christianity, what possible purpose would it serve to use a perversion of its rituals as a tool? Not at all logical.
There are some neopagans who use the Greek pantheon. In that pantheon is a god called Lucifer. Some Christians shout 'Ah-HA!' when they see this, equating the name with their Devil. What they don't understand is that Lucifer, as a Greek god, existed long before their religion did. The author of the 'Book of Isaiah' in their Bible mentions this god – in a derogatory fashion, of course – and the translation to English rendered his words – or at least one of them – as 'devil'. Lucifer is and was the Greek god of the morning star. The man must have been having, if you'll excuse the phrase, 'the devil's own time' trying to convert the followers of that god. But you'll find the names of many an ancient god amongst those of Christian devils, demons, etc. – and even one or two among the Catholic saints, when demonizing them didn't work. What better way to convert those 'unholy' pagans than to use smear tactics on their gods?
What is a warlock?
One explanation, although others have been brought forward, has the word warlock as being a corruption of the Old English 'Waer Loga', meaning oath-breaker or traitor*. Male witches are called witches – not warlocks. In Wicca, female witches are wicce (pronounced 'witch-eh') and male witches are called wicca (witch-ah). Members of other religions have their own designations for their members.
What do pagans believe?
This is a harder question. There is almost nothing that all pagans share belief in. Wiccans have the Wiccan Rede which says: 'An it harm none, do what ye will,' which is a simplified version of the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientalis) 'Do what thou wilt is the whole of the Law. Love is the Law; Love under Will'. Contrary to popular belief, the Wiccan Rede is not a law (the word 'rede' means advise or advice). The main idea is that you should harm no one – much like the well-known Golden Rule. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way to predict what all of the effects any action, magical or mundane, will have. However, many of the more new-age magic practitioners who follow the Wiccan Rede or the Westernized version of 'karma' would have it that you are responsible for all such results, even if some of the ramifications are accidental.
Most other pagans do not follow the Wiccan Rede; however, most have their own codes of conduct. Most pagans (but by no means all) believe in reincarnation. By definition, this is the rebirth of a spirit into another body. Most do not believe in transmigration, which holds that the spirit reincarnates immediately – often, but not always, into the body of an animal.
Who runs Witchcraft in the United States?
There is no organization to which even all Wiccans belong, let alone all witches. Nor is there a central authority for most other types of pagan. Each witch or other pagan is a priest or priestess, and has a personal relationship with his or her own deities. There is, as yet, no provisions for a laity in most types of paganism, although many are working on it. If they belong to a group, that group, depending on the religion, is called a circle, coven, grove, college (a teaching group) or any of a number of other designations, and can number anywhere from three to fifty (usually no more than that). The usual upper end, however, is right around twenty, with the average being six to ten. Each group makes its own rules and cares for its own members. In spite of the high profile witches/pagans you find from time to time, none is recognized by all of their community. Often those who are most public are considered opportunistic and commercial by most of the others. Pagans in general believe that one should follow a faith and not a leader.
Do Pagans/Witches believe in God?
Yes, but here we have to define 'God'. What, exactly, existed at the beginning? We can be morally, but not factually certain of the answer to that question. Christians, certainly, would immediately say 'God' (meaning Yahweh). But that doesn't really answer the question, because 'God' cannot be quantified. The fact that everything is made of energy gives us at least a part of the answer, and that is that energy would have existed then, too. So the universe and all that is within it is and was created of energy. There would have been very simple energy combinations first, resulting in sub-atomic particles, then atoms, then molecules, etc. And all of that matter went into making up all the suns and planets, all the flora and fauna, all of the men and women, and everything else that exists both in our world and everywhere else. It's all energy. We call that primal energy that started it all, and that still exists in all its myriad forms, 'God' and/or 'Goddess'. But even that is much too large an entity for most of us to get our minds around. In order to help us comprehend the nature of 'God/dess', we really have to give it form and substance – so we sub-divide it and name it depending on our pathway, culture, race, etc. It is Cerridwen, Bride, Hecate, Astarte, Isis, Aida-Wedo, and Arianrhod. It is Lugh, Bile, Osiris, Thor, Damballah, Manawyddon, Taranis and many others. What we must remember is that there is only one energy force, and we all share it. Every object, animate or inanimate, is part of the whole. Some believe that there is only one god-force that embodies male and female – both and neither. Some believe that there are other gods as well, but that they are all merely aspects of the whole, and some believe that, like humans, animals, plants, etc., there are gods that – while sharing the divine spark – are at the same time distinctly separate beings with their own personalities and agendas. And there are many shades in between.
If you will forgive a somewhat inelegant analogy? Let us imagine a pot of stew – or perhaps a gumbo would be more in keeping (For there are some that say that, in a stew, all you can see is a meal, while what you can see in a good gumbo, is everything. [w/ apologies to Terry Pratchett]). That gumbo represents all that is, was or ever could be. In its entirety, that gumbo is God/dess. Everything within that gumbo partakes of the 'gumbo-ness' but is, at the same time, a separate entity. This is similar to how many pagans view God/dess – not as being 'out there', but as in us, of us, with us, and everything else, yet so large and multi-faceted as to be unknowable in any but the smallest part.
What is the 'three-fold law'?
This is a Wiccan/New Age concept that says that all that you do, either good or bad, will return to you three-fold. This was meant to be a warning not to mis-use ones abilities. It is an outgrowth of a misunderstanding of the East Indian concept of karma. In essence, the East Indian concept of karma is merely one of action and reaction (although that's an over-simplification). For instance, if you stomp in a puddle of water, it will splash, ripples will go out and come back, etc, except that it also applies on a spiritual level. The British were exposed to this concept during their 'Empire' phase, when they ruled India. However, they misunderstood the concept and believed that when you stomped in that puddle, all of the water splashed back on the stomper. They took this misunderstanding back to Britain, where it traveled to the USA – all this during the Spiritualist movement in the mid-to-late 1800's and early 1900's. It wasn't until the New-Age and Neo-Pagan movement that it developed into the so-called 'Law of Three', which took the original misunderanding and multiplied it. Mind you, it was done with the best of intentions, but a warning to not misuse magical/psychic abilities to harm others has been taken literally and become dogma.
Can pagans cast spells?
Yes. And pagans also pray to their gods. But while a group or individual might include a prayer in their spell(s), they're two different things. A prayer is a conversation with your personal god/s. Humans being what they are, a large proportion of those prayers are requests for help or a favor, but we try to remember to just talk with them as well – not in a time set aside for the purpose, but throughout the day. A spell, on the other hand, is you using your own powers and abilities to effect change. The caster often calls on their god/s to aid in the endeavor, but they are two separate things. However, spells aren't purely a pagan phenomenon. You'll find spells being used by people from most religions, though they may not be called that by those using them.
What is a spell?
My definition: A spell is a work of magic. My definition of 'magic' is 'the psychic manipulation of fine energies as yet undiscovered by science (though they're working on it with their science of Quantum Mechanics) to precipitate an event or series of events that results in the desired outcome'. One can, if they so desire, request the cooperation of (a) particular god/s, spirits or elementals (including 'totems'), but I personally have never done so outside of a group setting. No particular reason – just haven't.
If you can manipulate events why aren't you all rich?
Magic doesn't usually work that way. For magic to work, a great deal of emotional energy is usually needed. This is easy to work up for things you really need, but not for those things that can be looked upon as a luxury. So you probably won't win the lottery (which, at any rate, has thousands of people throwing their own 'gimme' energy at it), but if you do your best, you might be offered overtime, or a part-time job, or someone might pay back a debt. Somehow, you will be given the opportunity to earn the money that you need. Notice I said 'need', not necessarily want, and I said 'earn', not be given – which, while possible, is NOT likely. Magic works best when you give it an opening through mundane effort.
Why do you do your rituals in the nude (Skyclad)?
In most areas of the world this is done only in a very few Wiccan traditions. In the Western world, it is a practice that was initiated by Gerald Gardner, who was an avid naturist (nudist). The rationale he gave for it, however, was that one must come before the Gods the way they were born and that clothing hampers the flow of energy in ritual and/or spellwork. But it is only a rationale – it is not fact. Nudism is fine if you're comfortable with it and the weather is cooperative, but it is by no means necessary.
What's with all the candles and stuff?
The use of fire and smoke in these pursuits is as old as Man, as is drumming, dancing, etc. These days most people use candles and incense and turn on the CD player, but it's the same principle. These are tools to help bring the hindbrain into play – the 'primitive' part of the brain that manipulates those energies. (Fire can also be used as a source of energy for spellwork.) Different incenses invoke different energy levels in our minds, and those scents that are most useful aren't always the flowery ones. But neither can one say 'this scent is always useful for this purpose for everyone'. Just as we all have different tastes and reactions to different foods, we also have different tastes and reactions to different scents. This is why most serious practitioners who use incense mix their own and use smoldering charcoal to burn them. Commercial incenses just don't cut it most of the time. I suggest Scott Cunningham's 'Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews' as a starting point for those who wish to investigate making their own incenses more fully.
As for all the other occult tools, some people get very good results with them, others find them a nuisance, and yet others outgrow them. We are all individuals. Use what works best for you in this regard. I will say, however, that MOST people need them – at least when they're getting started. I did, and most others I know did as well.
Do you have Initiation Rituals?
Most religions do, yes. Ever heard of baptism? That is one of Christianity's initiation rituals. Some religions have an initiation as part of their ritual lore, and some write a special initiation for the event each time, but for both the initiation is a rite of passage into the religious body. Can you be a witch/pagan without it? Yes. You can be a generic witch/pagan through your own effort and study, and you can self-dedicate. But you could study, say, Wicca for years and not have the right to call yourself a Wiccan without initiation and study with an established Wiccan who has completed their own training and coven (of any tradition that was NOT started by someone who only studied from books). The same holds true for most other pagan religions as well. But solitary or covened, be prepared to prove your knowledge when you present yourself to others. In this day and age, there are many who pick up a book and think they are an 'instant witch' – an attitude not kindly looked upon by those who have put years of study into their path.
How do degrees (ranks of learning) work?
Most neopagan religions which use degrees, by any name, have a three-degree system which usually starts with the unofficial status of 'seeker'. This is any person who is seeking to learn about the religion in question. Next is the initiate, or 1st degree. In this stage the initiate learns the basics of the religion – the rules, laws, dogma, etc. In 2nd degree the initiate learns the rituals and how to conduct them, plus other advanced studies. Third degree is generally considered to be finished with their studies, but actually stay on to learn how to handle and conduct the affairs of a practicing group. Other groups may have five, seven, or more levels of degrees; and some do not use a degree system of any kind – you're in or out: and if you're in, you're a teacher, student, or independent – period.
The idea of degrees as used in modern paganism, however, is one borrowed from occult brotherhoods such as the Masons, Golden Dawn, OTO, etc. Indeed, a large percentage of Wicca's structure is due to its (aborted) beginnings as a branch of the OTO.
How does one get to be a Witch?
There is only one way – study. Some people say you can be a 'born' witch/whatever. Wrong. You can be born with psychic abilities, but it is study that makes the witch, or any other sort of pagan. A few books or classes will not make you a witch/pagan, and there is no easy way to become one. A responsible pagan must know a great deal, and you will spend your lifetime learning and studying. You must know not only when to do a spell, but when mundane actions are the better course of action (which is most of the time). An understanding of history and mythology will stand you in good stead, as will a basic knowledge of anthropology, psychology, divination, tarot, herbs, comparative religion, geology, all facets of nature, etc. Study the cultures which resonate with your particular path, whether that be Norse, Celtic, Egyptian, Greek, Native American, Asian, Welsh, or other. In other words, study, study, study. Wisdom is not easily come by, and takes self-control as well as learning and a good knowledge of psychology and ethics. This is why most pagans look askance at any person under thirty who claims to know much of anything. You'll have to prove it. Always approach your elders with respect if you expect to get any in return.