A Little Vocabulary Lesson

“Witch” versus “Pagan” versus “Magician.”  What’s the difference?

This question is asked and debated a lot in the overall pagan community, especially among newcomers who are only recently introduced to paganism.  Some people have very strict answers for this question and debate can become rather heated over this topic.  (Commenters, please remember your manners if you should comment on this post.)  There are some who say the issue is decided, however I think there is a lot of give in the definitions of these terms.  As is the norm in paganism, there tends to be more than one answer depending on who you talk to and what you yourself come to believe is true.  Consider what follows to simply be a baseline of general thought for what these terms tend to mean.

“Pagan” is the umbrella term used most often.  It applies to a number of traditions and groups, from Asatru to Wiccan.  In the very earliest usage of the word “pagan,” the word simply meant a person who lived in the country, similar to the term “country bumpkin.”  The Oxford English Dictionary defines “pagan” as someone who does not belong to the dominant religion of a particular society, especially the Christian religion.  Today the usage of the word does mean someone who isn’t of the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim faith, but also has the connotation of someone who is part of a nature-worshiping faith.  Most in the pagan community are fine with the term “Pagan,” and many people will define themselves as such.

“Witch” tends to fall under the term “Pagan,” but a witch doesn’t have to necessarily be pagan (although I will grant that they usually are).  A witch is someone who has been initiated into a tradition following a line of witches.  This is usually someone who casts spells and has training in the ancient religion.  A pagan isn’t always a witch, as a pagan can practice nature worship without being initiated.  Pagans don’t have to always believe in magick, though many do.  However, a Witch does cast and does believe in magick, and under this definition is initiated into a tradition.

“Magician” is reason for spelling magick with a “k.”  Magicians are the stage magicians of magic shows and circuses.  They perform stage magic and illusions, not what we would call magick–their form of magic is for entertainment purposes only and doesn’t have a lasting effect beyond an imprint in the mind in the form of a memory.

Personally, I usually refer to myself as a pagan.  I’m not part of a tradition or a coven, I’m a solitary.  However, I do cast when I feel the need to do so and I do practice–some would say that does not qualify me as a witch, but others would say it does.  Myself, I use the term “witch” a little more loosely than the definition given above.  I am certainly not a magician–have you ever seen me try to perform a coin trick?  It’s not pretty, I always get it very wrong.  That term belongs to the fantasy books and circuses.

There’s a lot of variability in the terms used in the pagan community.  But if you’re looking for a word and don’t know what’s “proper,” go with the one that feels right.  Or go with the easiest one: say you’re a pagan!

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2 responses to “A Little Vocabulary Lesson

  1. Be careful about linking pagan with witches and magick so strongly – the term applies most strongly to any non-abrahamic faith, including buddhism and many Indian beliefs such as Sikhism, not to mention many far eastern faiths . Some of these may include ideas about magick or spells and so on, but very very different from the traditional western view of witches and magick.

    • Which is in my post. It’s true that when someone says the word “pagan” there is (at least in American society, I wouldn’t know about others) the added connotation of nature worship. That’s why I included the true definition from the OED, which defines “pagan” as encompassing any faith that is non-Abrahamic. The main focus of my post, however, was to point out the differences/similarities in the three terms, which, like many other things in paganism, can really only be spoken of in generalizations unless the writer wants to spend an entire day writing a book on all the specifics into one post.

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