As I was looking for something else (ain’t that always the way it goes?), I stumbled on an article by Arlie Stephens discussing the “Similarities and Differences Between Heathenry and Wicca,” which claims to be much like one written by Devyn Gillette and Lewis Stead (“The Pentagram and the Hammer”). I think the similarities begin and end with a thesis intended to compare and contrast the two traditions. Stephens claims that the Gillette and Stead article doesn’t, “really seem to empathize with Wiccans,” and that it, “focus[es] on the questions that Heathens care about,” I read them both and I disagree that the Gillette and Stead piece is insensitive to Wicca—if anything it softballs. However, I think they miss the mark on a number of claims. I’ll respond to both of these articles over a series of posts as I conduct my own exploration of “The Differences Between Paganism, Wicca, and Heathenry.”
This is not an attempt to cause even more friction between the groups, but an honest look at these two articles, their ”hotspots,” and their shortcomings. I work my way into my personal encounters–as a Heathen among Wiccans–but bear in mind they are just my encounters. Everything else comes from scholarship.
The articles don’t really talk about it too much, but I am always struck that the one fundamental difference is, of course, linguistic. The classical, pre-Constantine meaning of “Paganus” (Latin) is “of the country, rustic.” Paganus also came to mean “civilian, non-militant.”
It’s no surprise that Christians called themselves mīlitēs indicating that they were members of a militant church. After all, Constantine turned the cross into a sword! Also, the symbols of Christianity were the fish and the star (iota + chi) and other Christograms, symbols of life and light and with a certain intellectual element (linked to numerology etc.). It was after Constantine that the primary symbol became a brute militaristic symbol of execution and death. According to the OED, “The semantic development of post-classical Latin paganus in the sense ‘non-Christian, heathen’ is unclear. The dating of this sense is controversial, but the 4th cent. seems most plausible.”
On the other hand, “Heathen” is the Middle English for Old English hǽðen, Old Frisian hêthin, Middle Dutch heiden, Old High German heidan, and Old Norse heiðinn; it has always meant “non-Christian gentile.” We can assume, therefore that it came from the Gothic haiþnô (because it would have had to come after Christianity in order to mean neither-Christian-nor-Jewish—right?). I always thought it referred to folks who hailed from the heath. I thought it was the linguistic equivalent of Pagan: countryfolk.
It seemed to me that those who adhered to Mediterranean forms of pre-Christian rustic traditions would be Pagan while Celto-Germanic traditions (and Native American traditions, due to the import of the term from Old English alongside colonists) would be considered Heathen. I know that colloquially this is not the case. It just made sense linguistically. But nope. I thought wrong. To say “Heathen” makes a direct commentary on religious proclivities. You learn something new about countryfolk every day.
Wicca and Wica, however, appear in the OED as “wicce,” “wycce,” and so forth (all pronounced wɪtʃ/”witch” and meaning “witch”). I had heard-tell over and again that that the word Wicca rooted back to “wise” but the words for wise are “wys,” “wyss,” vyise,” etc. Though I can find plenty of claims of a connection, I can’t find a documented source (aside from Gardner and that which harkens back to Gardner) that proves a connection between wycce (witch) and wyss (wise). Now wit and witan, that means “witness” and “wise” (c900). But, don’t we still use wit?
One thing Gillette and Stead do say on the matter is that they are skeptical about the meaning of Wicca as well : “The etymology of the word ‘Wicca’ has been under close debate for some time, and frequently for reasons that have more to do with impressing an ideology than fair linguistic study.”
This is all just to say that I am still of the *academic* mind that Wicca originated with Gardner. I know that there were witchy practices in England and Ireland and Scotland prior to the Christianization of the Far West. I don’t doubt that for one minute. That they resembled today’s Wicca? I doubt it.
I was once asked (by someone defending a pre-Christian foundation for Wicca) if I thought Gardner made it all up out of his own head. My answer was, “No.”
No, I don’t think Gardner made it all up. Gardner’s Wicca looks too much like Golden Dawn practices (Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, etc.) for it to be made up. Looks to me like he adapted those traditions and designed his own.
And Holy Hel—stop right there—I never said that this was a disparagement. I never said that this made Wicca invalid. I never said that this was not an OK way to be. If anything, it’s what makes Wicca’s history compelling for me. So don’t put words in m’mouth.
Gillette and Stead agree when they point out that:
English civil servant and folklorist Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964) and author Doreen Valiente. Gardner himself became involved in witchcraft circa 1934, but Gardnerianism, as a sect, did not likely develop until well after the repeal of the English anti-witchcraft laws in 1951. Much of Gardner’s efforts owed itself to the works of various theorists, including anthropologist Margaret Murray, occultist Aleister Crowley, folklorist James Frazer, and poet Robert Graves. Ritual structure was further influenced by societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and Co-Masonry.
I mean, I’m not trying to debunk anything. I just want to make some documentable sense of it all.
That leads me to my first of the real differences between Heathens and Wiccans according to Stephens, Gillette, and Stead. Stephens (the author self-professed as “more sympathetic to Wicca”) says:
Another big difference is the attitude to historical research. While there is a huge range in both communities, Wiccans are, in general, much more likely to be interested in mythological or emotional rightness (how something feels), where Heathens are more likely to focus on scholarly research (what sources can be documented, and how reliable are they). In particular, Heathens care about consistency with recorded material. They tend to distinguish carefully between things recently invented and things derived from the recorded lore. A person who cannot identify their sources is likely to be laughed at or at least be somewhat forcefully educated . . . often by someone citing primary sources or recent scholarly work. Wiccans, on the other hand, may or may not care about scholarship. . . (emphasis added).
Does this mean, then, that Wicca supports the entitlement to just make trads up? (That’s a real question.) If not, why do they use words like “Fraudnerian” to indicate someone who they believe made up a tradition? (Or is that term just to deride someone for who claims to belong to Gardnarian Wicca? Or to deride someone who claims not to belong to Gardnerian Wicca. I get very confused by invectives when they get cross-used.) I’ve heard of lots of folks declaring to belong to a “family tradition” (not to be confused with FWTI, Family Wiccan Tradition International). That seems OK to Wiccans. I’ve even heard of folks applying the term “Witch” to a custom (like Native American spiritualism) that wouldn’t be caught dead using that word. All of this seems to be fine with Wiccan ethic too.
So where’s the line? That’s a real question.
This opens a whole new can of worms for me then. And this too is an actual question. Is it OK to make up traditions as long as they are adaptations of Gardnerian Wicca? Like Alexandrianism, Picti-Wita, Stregheria (a la Gramsci), Correllianism, Greenwood Tradition Celtic Shamanic Wicca (no really, it’s a thing), American Welsh Tradition (aka Edwardian Wicca), Faery Wicca, Seax-Wicca, and seemingly on-and-on. (I even knew a TW couple that reported an acquaintance making up his own tradition. Not that they were kind about it.) These seem to be OK with Wicca because they support and reify Gardner’s original.
I just want to be clear about what’s OK and what’s not. Maybe one day I’ll share with you my suspicions about the reasons for this phenomenon. But not ’til I can–you know–document my claims.
To me, as a Heathen, it’s all fine as long as its rooted in something real. Real. That which has no foundation? That’s where I draw the line. Then again, I am Heathen. It seems to be a trait. (I didn’t realize that before this week. Thought it was just me. But it makes sense–we are a very pragmatic rather than fanciful people. And we do remember history. National and personal.)
So my question becomes: Why, if the above is true, is it OK to adapt Wicca when Wiccans (in my community at least) call into question the adaptation of other traditions? What of Ásatrú, Vanatru, Odinism, Theodism, etc.? These are all branch sects too, right? If adaptation is OK with Wiccan ethics across the board, and if it’s not a Wiccan value to deride the adaptation of existing tradition, what’s the deal? I’m at a loss.
Let me back up a minute and talk about what I’m doing with my life and why this has come up. (This is the first time I’m sharing this outside my kindred and my editor, btw.) I’ve already told you that I’ve decided to call myself American Disrtoth–loyal to female ancestors/divine–Northern and New-World-American of all races. You already know–I was taught in a Hermetic methodology with loads of historical, cultural, and magical contexts. You also know that there was a good deal of practical application in altered states to interact with the aether, to work divination, and to heal. You likely know that I’m also trained as an academic feminist (undergraduate through doctorate—all on top of my uppity female attitude in high school). I’ve already explained that this is why all of my studies in Ceremonial Magick left me tilting my head a little to the left and saying “Hrrruuh?” You likely picked up that I had already been thinking about feminism in CM when Brandy Williams came out with The Woman Magician. At that point, I knew I was on the right track. At first, my thoughts were to work with The Sisters of Seshat (of which I have proudly been a member for some time), founded by Williams, who also found the EGC and OTO too phallic. However, because I had turned to Heathenry when I learned about Anglo-Saxon ethics, I couldn’t stick it out with CM. This was reinforced by some “encounters” with ancestral spirits and deified ancestors—almost all of these were Northern European; one was not. Almost all were female; one was not.
This is why I have taken the magical traditions of Heathenry (seiðr and the traditions of the völva), visited traditions from before all of the Christian (mostly Enlightenment Era) masculinized baggage, and set it in the historical perspective of matristic (not to be confused with matriarchal) culture and then gave it the additional respect our American ancestors (and their practices) deserve.
Technically Disrtroth is not new (and I would never be so gauche as to give it my own name). It’s just a method of teaching and practicing what American Heathens (including Powwow and Hoodoo) have been doing for centuries and what I have been doing in one form or another since the 90s. It’s the truest sense of what and who I am. How the gods called me to become. What’s the problem?
Some other differences I plan to discuss are as follow:
(1) I know that one does not have to be initiated into a Heathen tradition to be, say, Ásatrú, Vanatru, Theodish, etc. and that Wicca is an initiatory path. I also know that there are those “eclectic” folks out there who call themselves “Wiccan.” All is good as far as I’m concerned–as long as it has backbone.
I mean, I’m all about initiation and oathmaking. Actually, I require it. Odd for a Heathen, I know–but I am more seiðr-centered than most. (Which is a process in Disrtoth–see, is it starting to come together for ya?) But I would never deign to criticize someone who found validation otherwise. Unless of course they had no good foundation. I’ve already pointed out that that is my one and only requirement: foundation, rationale, good-sense. Barring that? Everything is permitted; do what thou wilt, happy hunting, and blessed be. I don’t even think you have to have a family connection to anything. Those of us who do are extraordinarily blessed. Those who don’t are still our peers. But Gillette and Stead maintain that:
. . . an extraordinary number of Wiccan practitioners may make assertions to a direct connection with distant familial lineages (often connected with the European “witch craze”) or other exotic individuals or groups from which the particulars of their tradition and training are handed down directly. . . . [but] such statements seem unconfirmable. . . . This practice was so prevalent at one time that the assertions behind the late Alexander Sanders’ entry into Wicca served as the model for what became called “grandmother stories.” . . . such assertions sometimes become the subject of social ridicule . . . [and such behavior is called] witch wars, bitchcraft, and warlocking.
[Heathens] do not seem to possess as much a predilection for asserting (often cross-cultural) claims to a direct connection with ancient or esoteric practice as Wiccans do. In fact, those few who have made such claims are generally considered laughingstocks. . . . The beliefs and practices of ancient [Heathenry] can be confirmed academically through a myriad of historical accounts, texts, and chronicles. We know who the Northmen and the Teutons and the Saxons were worshipping and we have an idea how they were doing it. As a result, claims to direct ancient lineages become irrelevant.
(2) Of the theological differences between Wicca (and Wicca-based eclectic practices) and Heathenry is the polarity between genders which affects our sexual ethics. This is a fascinating thing that really slipped my mind in a concrete sense. It always just hung there like a nebula.
(3) There are also issues which stand between our concepts concerning land ownership. Bet you can’t wait to hear my legalese.
(4) Other differences involve priesthood. Wiccans, it seems, are far more exclusive whereas Heathens tend to be merit-based. I’ve been working on a post about intellectual-sacral-leadership and secular-leadership (actually editing the chapter about intellectual-sacral-leadership and secular leadership). (5) These differences bleed into differences in magical practices.
(6) There are also issues of symbolism and (7) our thoughts about the end of world. Rather—confusion about what Heathens believe in regard to the apocalypse. Think pentagram/hammer. And Ragnarok–rather avoiding it.
Let me have some more time and I’ll work through these.
 You should read Constantine’s Sword. If you can’t get arsed to read, at least watch the documentary.
 Then again, wita, pronounced waIt, also means “punishment” “esp. the torments of hell” (c825) and “blame” (c893).
 There is actually a great article called “The Meaning of Wicca.” (White, Ethan Doyle. Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 12.2: 2010). I assign it to my “Seekers” in every wave. They say it’s a real eye-opener for them.
 People like Ronald Hutton and the author of Uncommon Sense make a career of debunking “historical” evidence espoused by Wiccans and other neo-Pagans. (Read my old posts explaining my stance on neo-Paganisms.)
 I’ve talked about such “colonization” before. And I only bring it up now because I was recently (openly and publicly) called a fraud. (Even though I’ve never claimed to be TW. As a matter of fact, I’ve always claimed the opposite. Which is why I’m s’damned confused.)
 Would the person who called me a fraud call these sects fake too? Or is it just me? I s it, um, personal?
 It didn’t have a name. When I asked Bertie what to call it, she tentatively said, “The Arts.” So I’m going with that. You want to call that in to question? That’s on you.
 My undergrad mentor edited Norton’s Critical A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It goes way back.
 One who actually understands and can be in easy conversation with the likes of Kristeva, Irirgaray, Gross, Conboy, hooks, Morgana, Butler, Bordo, Haraway, Cixous, Potonie-Pierre, deBeauvoir, Wittig, you name it—not just one or two over and over.
 Ironically the one who called me a fraud encouraged me to, “Start your own tradition!”