“Wicca is anything you want it to be.” comes up every so often. It goes like this: someone – often very well-meaning – gets interested in modern Paganism, reads some books, and thinks that they’ve found a religious path in which they are entirely free to do anything they want, and call it Wicca.
Many people – especially those from restrictive religious backgrounds (where there were a lot of things you were supposed to do or not supposed to do) find the idea of religious freedom very powerful. And they should – freedom is a transformative experience, and one we should treasure.
But like all transformative acts, it’s one that comes with responsibilities and consequences. We live in a world with lots of interconnections and interactions, and so what we think and do is going to rub up against what other people think and do. Some of those will be easy to solve, others can be trickier.
There are three main kinds of issues: terminology, practical, and community. And at the end of this essay, there’s a few ideas of what to try instead.
- The question of terms:
- The practical questions:
- The question of community:
- Some options:
The question of terms:
If you haven’t already read it, my essay on the way that different people use the term Wicca covers some of the basics. In summary, if we use the same term for “initiatory oathbound mystery tradition with specific rites, practices, and deities” and also for “anything I want, which has some deity references, maybe some magical practice, and periodic celebrations”, you can see how it gets really confusing very quickly.
If you do that, what happens when you go on a forum and say “I want to learn more about Wicca?” How are you going to know if you’re getting advice from people who know about the kind you want to know about? How are you going to sort through group information without a lot of wear and tear (on you and on the groups or people you talk to)? How are you going to figure out which books are most useful to you, without reading them (because this kind of thing isn’t usually specified well in short blurbs)?
Turns out that a really broad term doesn’t help most people. And it particularly doesn’t help you, as a seeker. It doesn’t help other people suggest resources that fit you. It doesn’t help you do meaningful web searches. And it doesn’t help you if the label you try to fit your practice into doesn’t actually fit.
This is why you’ll often see people using more specific terms. Here’s a few:
British Traditional Wicca (or BTW)
This is used to describe a small handful of specific traditions that descend directly in various initiatory lines from the New Forest Coven. (Gardnerian and Alexandrian are the best known, but there are a couple of others.) This term is used in the US, but not so much elsewhere.
Traditional or Initiatory Wicca
Often used to describe traditions and practices which involve oathbound initiatory mystery traditions. (BTW fits in this group, but some people include other traditons too.)
A term used by some people to describe non-initiatory paths based on public material about Wicca. These paths can be entirely functional paths in their own, but having a different label makes it easier to find material and share it with others. Other terms for related (but not always overlapping) approaches include exoteric Wicca or dedicatory religious witchcraft. You may also see the term Outer Court material.
This is a broad term that includes Wicca (whatever way you’re using the word), but also a lot of other practices that are not at all related to Wicca (such as the Feri Tradition, or any number of small traditions that have sprung up).
I think it’s a much more useful fit for many people who are not initiates in a Wiccan tradition, because it means that anyone you tell it to will immediately know they probably need to ask about your interests (or how you do ritual, or what deities you honour in your rituals, or whatever else) rather than guessing and maybe getting it wrong. As I mention elsewhere on the site, I define my own practice as initiatory religious witchcraft, even though it looks like things a lot of people would comfortably call Wicca. I believe we’re working with different core mysteries and ritual goals than Wicca, and I think that’s a really important thing to be clear about.
The practical questions:
A lot of people find the idea “I can do anything I like in ritual” to be really appealing. The thing is, that’s a bit like saying “I can cook any way I like!”
You have the freedom to do that. No one’s going to come into your home and stand over you and scold you. But that doesn’t mean that all methods lead to an equally good meal – or an equally good ritual or religious life or spiritual experience.
Some methods may just not get the results you wanted (which is a waste of your time and resources) But some methods may be dangerous for you or for other people – food poisoning from bad handling practices, for example or not cooking something properly, or causing a fire. And those are a problem, not just for you but quite possibly for other people.
Some people have used “Wicca is anything I want it to be” as an excuse for creepy, predatory, or abusive. Some people have had things go badly wrong because they didn’t know how to use a tool, or didn’t know that a particular event was a warning sign of a really big problem (like thinking something was a spiritual experience, when really it was a sign that medical treatment or other professional support was necessary.)
I don’t know about you, but those are pretty big things. And I’d rather people avoid them if they can.
The other part is that not everything fits together. Some ritual practices just don’t use the same building blocks. Or if you haven’t gone through training with a particular method, it may just be words for you, rather than a powerful and effective ritual experience. There are also the issues with constructing a path that I discuss in the essay of that name. (Read the linked essay at the top, too, it’s highly relevant to this.)
Finally, just because it’s not forbidden doesn’t mean that something’s a good idea.
I’m a grown adult in my 40s, and no one’s going to tell me I can’t have ice cream for breakfast, or stay up all night even though I have to be up for work early. But if I do those things, they have consequences, and I will probably figure out that giving up a bit of freedom is better for my health and for my having a job that pays the bills and lets me have other things I value (a home for me and the cat and the books, the ability to do other things I love.)
Magic and religious traditions are the same way. No one’s going to tell you you can’t do something in Paganism, generally, unless you’re talking about a specific individual structured path. But that doesn’t mean you can do a little bit of everything. There are still things that don’t fit together or that conflict with your real long-term goals.
The question of community:
Often, when this question comes up, you see people saying “But it says in books that this is okay!” Which, yes, it does. But here’s the thing. Books are imperfect. Authors are imperfect. There’s actually several things going on here.
We get better at talking about things over time.
Paganism as a whole is a fast-growing and fast-changing group of religions. Especially since people had wide-spread Internet access, the speed of conversation has really picked up.
Books, in contrast – at least traditionally edited print books – lag about two years behind the times. The topics that were cutting edge when they were being written can be old hat when they come out. (I remember this particularly with Phyllis Currott’s Witchcrafting – there’s a couple of topics in there that are presented as new and unusual, and when the book came out, they’d been widely discussed in both the online and in-person communities I spent time in for at least two years. Her presentation of them, as I recall, is good, but it wasn’t amazingly new stuff is what I’m saying.)
Anyway, one of the things we get better at with time is how we talk about things with nuance. Back in the 80s and the 90s and even the early 2000s, there was a lot of very general terminology use out there. In the last decade or so, though, we’ve gotten better and better at saying “Hey, that’s an awesome thing you’re doing, but if you called it something other than Wicca, people who want that awesome thing might find it more easily.” Or expressing the idea that there are lots of different kinds of Paganism, and they don’t all look like Wicca. (In fact, most of them don’t.)
My essay on the classic books (and why we should read them, but what we should keep in mind when we do) goes into these topics in more depth.
Basically, though, if a book is more than 3-4 years old, there’s a lot of stuff in the larger discussion it doesn’t cover – because that larger discussion hadn’t happened when it was being written.
Some terms come with obligations for other people:
One part of many witchcraft initiation oaths is a promise to help brothers and sisters in the Craft. Exactly how one defines that varies by the tradition (and the interpretation of the initiate) – some people interpret it as an initiate of their tradition or similar traditions, some people interpret it more widely.
But if you go up to someone and say “You’re Wiccan, I’m Wiccan, help me.” you’re basically doing the same as saying “Ancestry.com or 23 and Me says that maybe we’re 5th cousins. I’m out of work and need a job, can I crash on your couch for a month? Raid your fridge? Borrow your favourite sweater/dress/dog/book/piece of technology?”
Your family (whether blood or chosen) would likely be glad to help you. But a distant relative? Probably not with that, though maybe they might help with a smaller well defined task (like suggestions of good places to live in their area, or the best book on a particular topic.)
In other words, you’re basically placing an emotional obligation on them – a stranger. If you – like most people – wouldn’t expect family-type help from a stranger, you probably want to be thoughtful about your terminology, too.
Some of them honestly believe this, I’m sure. Or the specific things they’re doing and advising are things that can legitimately be combined. (Sometimes, that really does happen.)
Publishing is complicated, and writing a book with broad appeal is even more complicated – there are lots of very good reasons to write something that is an open system, not a closed one.
But sometimes authors say it because they aren’t considering the effect on the rest of the community – the people who have to explain to the people who read their books that just because they picked up the term ‘Wiccan’, that doesn’t mean that stranger is owed an invite to private rituals, or help with a crisis at 3am or to have things changed around in a particular tradition’s practices to suit someone else’s particular priorities. (All stories I’ve heard over the years or been around for).
In general, apply logic.
Why is this person telling you this? Who does it benefit if you believe them that this thing is wide open for you to pick and choose from? Who does it possibly hurt? What’s the other side of the argument?
(I care about this because I want you to understand how to find the info you care about. Because I think words work better when they mean things. Because I’ve had so many conversations over the years with people who think they want Wicca and who really wanted something else – but because they didn’t look at other terms, they got stuck with something that didn’t really work for them for a while. Years, sometimes.)
When you’re first exploring, don’t rush into picking a label for what you’re doing. You can say “I’m curious about Wicca, but I’m also curious about other kinds of religious witchcraft” or whatever makes sense to you.
Pay attention to when things were written:
Again, if it’s more than 3 years old and in print, it’s presenting ideas that were current at least 2 years before that. 5 years is a very long time in the Internet era, in terms of how we talk about things. It doesn’t mean that book is bad – just take what it says about community topics (including questions of how we identify or label a practice) with a big grain of salt, and keep looking for more current discussions.
Listen when people explain why they use terms:
And look for the people who’ve given some thought to the question. There isn’t one perfect right answer to this question for many people, but you want to pay more attention to the people who realise it’s complicated and has community implications than the people who say you can do anything you like. (Why? Because the people who are aware of the community implications are probably going to give you better advice about all sorts of other things – like finding resources or safety issues.)
Listen in general.
I feel strongly about this topic (if you hadn’t guessed) but I’m also pretty glad to explain it when I’m asked thoughtfully and by someone who seems willing to learn. If people link you to other resources, go read them when you can. If you have questions after that, ask specific questions as much as possible. (General ones can be really frustrating for the people you’re talking to.)
Pay attention to differences of opinion.
What do they have in common? What kinds of goals do they have in common? Who benefits if you do things one way or the other? What are you giving up if you make a given change?
There are times when the widely established terms are useful – people serving in the military or who are in prison, where there are very strict structures about religious practice, for example. But for most people, saying “I’m a religious witch” or even “I’m Pagan” (a much broader umbrella term) does just fine, and then you can get into more specifics if it’s relevant.
If you have that much attachment to a particular term, in other words, I think it’s very good to be extremely clear in your own head why. And “Because authors have said it’s all right” has never seemed good enough to me.
Have high standards for yourself.
Magic and ritual rely on knowing yourself, on developing skills over a period of time. Your Gods, if you honour them, likely want you to have high standards for yourself, too. Be sure of why you’re using terms or tools or practices as you add them to your life. Learn ways to say “I’m exploring this thing” or “I’m a seeker.” that don’t commit you to something before you understand it.
Self-control is the flip side of freedom. And it’s also a powerful magic.
[last edited December 23, 2016]