Thursday, September 29, 2011


You can't "own" a word. People will call themselves whatever they please, and you can either go with the flow, or fight a battle you will eventually lose, or have already lost, though you can't admit it. Once a word is out of the box, it's impossible to put that word back in the box.

About two thousand years ago there was this guy named Paul who walked around the Roman Empire preaching about a guy he called "Jesus" and proclaiming a new religion he called "Christianity." There were a lot of people who liked Paul's message and also began calling themselves Christians.

Back in Jerusalem the brother of Jesus (named James) heard about the things Paul was preaching about and sent out his own missionaries to correct the things Paul was saying. Unfortunately for James, the people who liked what Paul had to say ignored James' definition, even though he (James) was the acknowledged leader of the Christian Church and the brother of Jesus. James couldn't control the use of the word Christian.

Later there were people who called themselves "Christians" even though their definition of the word was different from Paul. Even in his lifetime Paul began to lose ownership of the word Christian, just like James. For centuries the Catholic Church thought that it owned the word "Christian" but Martin Luther challenged that notion, and won. He created a whole different kind of Christianity, one that existed side by side with the one mostly created by the Catholic Church. Since Martin Luther other people have challenged the ownership of the word Christian, and have won.

My Christian friends won't like this, but basically anyone who worships Jesus can call themselves a Christian. That's the precedent established by Paul when he established his gentile-loving version of the faith. Sure there are probably a few other qualifications, and there are still people who challenge the ownership of the word, but they tend to lose those arguments.

(Curiously enough the people who feel as if they own the word "Christianity" are the last ones to the party. The evangelical movement is about 100 years old, yet it's those folks who are the loudest about proclaiming who is and who is not a Christian. You think it would be the Catholic Church, or perhaps the Greek Orthodox Church, the older established churches, but no, it's the newest one.)

In Contemporary Paganism a similar war is being fought over the word "Wicca." I was having lunch with a few friends on Friday and we began talking about the word "Wicca." One of them reminded me that the word "Wicca" only refers to initiates who walk a traditional path. Generally many of those traditional paths are lumped together as "BTW" (British Traditional Witchcraft). The most well known BTW groups are Gardnerian and Alexandrian, but there are several more. The point that was being made was that to call yourself "Wiccan" you had to be an initiated member of a traditional group.

My friends over at the amberandjet Yahoo group have summarized this definition of Wicca better than I ever could(1):

"The term "Wicca" refers specifically to the lineaged, initiatory mystery religion with roots in the New Forest region of Great Britain, manifested today through various "traditions" all linked with a common ancestry back to the New Forest area. "Wiccans" or "The Wica" are the properly lineaged, properly initiated members of those Traditions."

The definition from Amber and Jet is extremely clear, and on that particular email list, it's the definition accepted by all of its members when they post there. I am a member of Amber and Jet and when I use the word "Wicca" amongst those folks it's the definition I adhere to, though I disagree with it, all while thinking they are right. I know, I'm trying to have my cake and eat it too, but I'll explain.

I agree with the Amber and Jet definition because I can see their point. For decades, the only way to become a Wiccan was to meet other Wiccans and then undergo an initiation. There were no printed rituals, no forums of exchange. The ideas that constitute Wicca were only available to a limited, and hopefully select, few who underwent training and participated in an initiation ceremony. Wicca was something that was sometimes written about, but its rituals remained secret. There were no "do it yourself Wicca" books.

The "cat getting out of the bag" can probably be traced to a specific few in the BTW Movement.  Michael Howard writes in his book "Modern Wicca" (which is must reading if you are a Pagan History Buff like myself) that his High Priestess had him send his book Book of Shadows to an American woman, and that they then initiated her by proxy.  In fairness passing The Craft to Americans in the 60's and 70's was fraught with challenges, but it shouldn't have surprised anyone when that American broke her oath of secrecy and printed the BoS sent to her.  That was in the early 70's, and from that point on "Wiccan Rituals" were easy to find and accessible to anyone.*

While some of the ritual that makes up BTW has been leaked, there is still a lot out there that has never been published.  It's a secret, initiatory thing, and as a result it has wisdom in it going back generations.  Much of that wisdom exists off the printed page and in the hearts and minds of its Priests and Priestesses.  Even if someone broke their oaths and published everything, there would still be parts of it unknown to those who have just read about it.

What's important for our purposes here is that once a book is published with the words Wicca, Witch, or Witchcraft on it, the word begins to change meanings.  How many books are out there with the word "Wicca" in them unrelated to BTW?  I'd guess hundreds, maybe even a thousand.  It becomes impossible to tell someone who has a house full of books with "Wicca" in the title who has been following those volumes for fifteen years and self identifies as a "Wiccan" that they aren't a Wiccan  If you read a book called "Wiccan Rituals" and then practice those rituals for ten years, it would make sense to call yourself a Wiccan.  It's as simple as that.

Sometime in the late 70's and early 80's people began calling themselves Wiccan regardless of initiation. Because most people probably experience Modern Paganism through books (or over the internet), especially twenty to thirty years ago, people began to call themselves Wiccan due to what they read.  Raymond Buckland's The Tree was published in 1973 and is basically a do it yourself version of Wicca that doesn't require an initiation.  How do you tell that practitioner that they aren't what they think they are, especially when a book justifies their thinking.

While I think we've sometimes gotten a little too liberal with the use of the word "Wicca," I'm of the mind that as long as the practitioners call four quarters/elements/watchtowers, cast a circle, honor at least a Goddess, but preferably a Goddess and a God, and celebrate cakes and ale, they can probably use the term "Wicca" to describe their ritual and themselves.  I understand why traditional groups get outraged by this, but I don't know how you reclaim ownership of a word.  To reclaim it, you'd literally have to shut down, burn a million books, and delete countless internet pages.  In other words, it can't be done in the United States.  You can't control the flow of information, so you can't control the use and definition of a word.

Don't believe me?  Ask Jesus and James how they feel about today's "Christianity."  

1.    As was pointed out to me by the writer of the Amber and Jet definition of Wicca, I left out the first nine words in their definition, that first sentence states ""For the purposes of the Amber and Jet list, the term "Wicca" refers...."   I thought I had referenced that elsewhere in the piece, I was wrong, which is commonplace for me.  

*Gardner's BoS was published back in the 1960's by other oath-breakers, and even outright thieves, but it never became super easily accessible.  Those pirated versions weren't for sale at the mall.   


  1. Hmmmm......Hmmmmm! Food for thought, Mr. Mankey. Food for thought.......

  2. Editing the Amber and Jet definition like you did makes it look like we're trying to define Wicca for everyone. The actual statement as it appears on the list and website begins: "For the purposes of the Amber and Jet list, the term "Wicca" refers...". Those first nine words are important -- that's why I wrote it that way.

  3. I certainly wasn't trying to disparage A&J, I chose that definition because I know you write things clearly and concisely. Amber and Jet defines the traditional definition of Wicca with a clarity I'm incapable of. :)

  4. No no -- no disparaging taken. I just know the Trad folks get accused of being snooty and judgmental enough without it looking like we tried to define Wicca for the entire world. I agree with the entirety of your entry here. I know what I mean when I say I'm Wiccan, but I can't necessarily know what you mean with the same word. My father-in-law deals with that issue as a Lutheran (Missouri Synod) minister -- he has a very narrow personal definition of "Christian", and gets frustrated when that label is applied to Mormons, the Unity School of Christianity, or even Catholics. He refuses to accept that the word means more than just what it does to him.

  5. I like to consider myself Pagan with Wiccan tendencies. I think this mostly because I'm solitary, have never had formal training and so the labels don't really mean too much in my case, although after 22 years on the path I like to know what to call myself.

  6. Awesome, Jason. Now you are getting Mormon ads. Love it.

  7. "While some of the ritual that makes up BTW has been leaked, there is still a lot out there that has never been published. It's a secret, initiatory thing, and as a result it has wisdom in it going back generations."

    Um, Wicca has been pretending to be ancient religion since 1958. I suppose generations can be used but it is very few generations.

    Wica was a term used by Leland long before BTW existed.

    When I was with a BTW group EVERY meeting was bogged down by rants on this topic. People visited from England things were bogged down by this topic. It seems to me that if people did the work involving their religion, they'd get over this ego trap.

  8. I would argue that Modern Wicca probably dates from at least the 1940's, and even if you were to just say the 50's, that's sixty years now, that would be three generations of people. I think there are elements to it that could be hundreds of years old, related to the magick side of things, not the religious one.

    Leyland used the word Wica? I don't think so.

  9. Read him, Aradia Gospel of Witches, and you will be surprised.