No one owns the word “witch.” (Or, how to engage more effectively with people you disagree with.)

The Snake River Canyon. Photo by me in 2011. One side is green, the other is brown; which is correct?

The old argument over who gets to call themselves a witch reared it’s ugly head in a Facebook group the other day.

I admit to being a little grumpy as the conversation went forward, because one guy decided to straw-man my position and told meI needed to be “re-educated,” all the while proclaiming loudly and prolifically – to everyone in the thread – that witches should not do public rituals because it makes everyone who identifies as a witch look bad.

I’ve said before that no one owns the word “witch.”  Anyone can call themselves a witch, and your experience with them may vary.  There is no central authority handing out the title of “witch,” so there aren’t any qualifications that need to be met, nor authorities governing behavior.  (Though that hasn’t stopped people from trying.)    And anyone who advocates for “Witches shouldn’t xx” clearly hasn’t given any thought to how some authority would enforce such restrictions.

But I digress.

The word “witch”

Mat Auryn over at Patheos (For Puck’s Sake) posted a great essay on his take on being a witch.  Great job, Mat, I pretty much agree with you.

If the rest of y’all haven’t read it, please do.

If you’re new to Paganism, or if you’re new to Wicca, please take a moment to read some history and etymology of the word “witch.”  You should also read some critical history of Gerald Gardner and Margaret Murray.  The origin story of Wicca makes claims about the name “witch” that are difficult to reconcile with the historical record.  Hence the disagreement I experienced in the Facebook group.  You should be aware of the minefield you’re about to step in if you jump in on this argument.

If you’re super nerdy about language, check out Bosworth-Toller.  It’s an online dictionary of Anglo-Saxon English, and if you can trace the OE spelling of a word, you can get a great list of textual references.  For example, here’s one on Wicca.  Here’s a search on the term “witch,” which if you notice, there are a lot of negative connotations for.

My recommendation, if you want to maintain a healthy discussion and preserve your reputation, is to go into any argument figuring that you know about 1/3 to 1/2 of whatever you’re discussing.  Assume that the other person has some valid points.  Be open to revising your opinion if you get new information.  Be ready to quote your sources, or ask other people to quote theirs.  Avoid making some kind of universal claim, like “All witches are xx.”

Speaking of not all witches…

There’s a logical fallacy called “No true Scotsman.”  Basically, anyone who makes your group look bad is excluded from the group.  Examples might look like:

  • “No true Christian would discriminate against poor people.”
  • “No true Scotsman would accept British rule.”
  • “No true witch ignores the Law of Attraction/Threefold Law.”

Look, there are about as many Pagan paths as there are Pagan practitioners.  It seems like once a person gets past the very basic information, they start poking around and experimenting, making it their own.  I haven’t met any two Pagans whose practice matches identically.

I suspect it’s that way for most people, regardless of religion.  At least in Christianity, you can pretty much find a group of people who want to practice mostly the same way as you.  Like ritual?  Go Catholic.  Like representative leadership?  Be Presbyterian.  Like woo~?  Be Pentecostal.

In Paganism, though, we have a couple big umbrella terms that can mean some radically different things.  (Those terms are Pagan and Witch.)  What I do as a Witch or Pagan may not be what anyone else does as a Witch or Pagan.

But because we don’t have lots of numbers, we sorta have to let some things slide as far as what we’re able to tolerate among other people who use the same name.

Which means that we don’t have any central authority deciding what is and is not witchcraft.  Or Paganism.

So automatically, the “No true witch/Pagan” argument falls flat.

A helpful tip

It’s a good idea to figure out some space in your spiritual path for people doing things different than you.  Or using words differently.

I might even go so far as to say, you should make some space and set some personal boundaries on what to do when another person is doing it wrong.

It would be helpful on an individual level (and to the broader Pagan community) if part of those boundaries included a plan for what happens when you’re the one that’s wrong.  Because I guarantee, sometimes your Unverified Personal Gnosis is going to just be fantasy.  You’ll have false-starts that feel real.  You’re going to change your opinions, or your gods, or even your whole belief system.

Or at least you probably will, if you’re doing the work and actually growing. I suppose there’s some room in there for adapting yourself to a pre-existing path, and I don’t want to discount the wisdom in doing so.  But it’s my experience that those paths have names, and if you’re following one, you’re probably not going by the generic title of “witch” or “pagan.”

Why should I care?  I’m not the one doing it wrong.

Well, you might be.  Or you might not be.

But no one has ever been persuaded by someone on the internet telling them they’re wrong.  It’s rare enough in person, and usually involves an sit-down with a group of concerned family and friends.  And even then, the person has to want to change.

I think, for the sake of community, it’s worth your time to find ways to flex in your dealings with other people.  Make some space in your beliefs for other people’s experiences to be valid.

For example – I called out a certain well-known atheist pagan for being super-defensive and critical of anyone who didn’t match his beliefs.  My perception was that he was fighting for a seat at the Pagan table, but then trying to make everyone who was already there see things his way.  I told him – with as much compassion as I could muster – he was coming across like a dick.  I honestly think he took my intervention to heart, because his posts have decreased in vitriol, and he has changed his focus toward kindness and compassion.  I think that is incredibly awesome, and I have huge respect for him.

On the other hand, you have witches judging other witches, saying things like “Tsk tsk, you shouldn’t be so quick to hex, because you’ll have to deal with the threefold return.”  Or, “You shouldn’t be so open about your practice, we don’t want to risk another Burning Times.”  The problem with those kinds of statements, is that – whether you realize it or not – you’re holding another person accountable to your own system of ethics.

And they may not share those ethics.

For example, many witches ignore Gerald Gardner’s contribution to Witchcraft, including the threefold law.  They will hex as easily as they will heal.  In fact, many traditional witches will say that you cannot effectively heal if you cannot effectively hex.

In my personal experience, many of the Wiccan rules about magic simply don’t happen.  I’ve hexed before, I’ve cast spells for personal and financial gain, and I haven’t experienced a “threefold return.”  In fact, most of the time, my spells work exactly the way I want them to, either helping me face myself and grow, or helping me move into a more healthy or prosperous life.

But what about abusive/illegal activity?

If you abuse someone, or commit illegal acts, you should expect to have the police called to stop you from hurting people.

If you witness abuse or illegal activity, you should say something.

I won’t be getting into the gray area of the ethics of various illegal activities.  If you decide that an illegal act is not harmful, and you do not wish to inform the authorities, that’s between you and yours.

But if you do nothing while a child sex predator grooms underage victims, I would say that is not an appropriate use of these suggestions.  If you witness abusive behavior between individuals in your group, you should probably say something about it.

Sometimes victims don’t want to change.  Sometimes, victims don’t realize they’re victims.  And sometimes, victims very much need an advocate or validation of their feelings.  I feel like it’s better to say “Hey, that behavior is inappropriate” than to let it slide.

Because letting things slide is tacitly giving permission for the person to continue.  And back to the case of someone having a different belief or practice than you, that can be a very good thing.

So – barring abuse or illegal activities, I strongly suggest taking some time to consider ways that you can maintain the strength of your convictions, while leaving room for other people to have a different (and completely valid) experience.

Final thoughts

This isn’t meant to be a rant or some diktat making you do things my way.  Hopefully, this will give you some things to think about in your own practice.  Maybe one day you realize that you said something judgmental, and didn’t realize it.  Or you’re thinking about the way you do things, and you realize that the way someone else does them doesn’t match up.

Hopefully, this sparks a train of thought where you wrestle with conflicting information.  I think those are some of the most valuable things in our spiritual path – having to face the challenge of when things don’t line up nice and neat, but where we have to actually work to find a way to navigate them.

Maybe this is a way of helping to cut through illusions, and come to a deeper understanding of your relation to your fellow Pagans.  Or maybe it’s just a call for compassion, that by making space for others’ differences, they in turn make space for yours.

What are your thoughts?  I’m interested to hear in the comments, how you deal with other Witches and Pagans you disagree with.


About the Author

I live in the sagebrush desert of southern Idaho, in a little town perched above a deep, rocky canyon. I've been pagan for a little over two decades. I've dipped my toes in Wicca, Rosicrucianism, Yoga, Reiki, and Qabala, only to settle into an Earth-based Neopagan Buddhist path. My credentials (if you care about such things), include an MA in English, an apprenticeship with Jason Miller, and a few publications here and there. I run a small Pagan group with my lovely wife, where we encourage people to show up, do pagan stuff, and live empowered and ethical lives.

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