“Pagan” vs. “Wicca”: What Is The Difference?

In the 1950s, a new spiritual and nature-focused religion started to gain steam. It was deemed wicca, and its followers called wiccans. For people on the outside looking in, there was the possibility for some confusion on what, exactly, wiccans practiced—including how it related to paganism. Which draws the question: are you pagan if you’re wicca?

Someone who is wiccan follows “a nature-oriented religion having rituals and practices derived from pre-Christian religious beliefs.” Witchcraft is typically associated with the religion. A pagan, on the other hand, is “a member of a religious, spiritual, or cultural community based on the worship of nature or the earth.”

Wicca, therefore, is a subsect that falls into the larger category of paganism. There are many misconceptions about what it means to be a pagan. Yet a look at what the term truly means—also, importantly, what it doesn’t mean—proves that wicca and paganism are no more or less mysterious than the rest of the world’s major religions.

What does wicca mean?

Wicca as a religion can be traced to 1950s England and a man named Gerald Brousseau Gardner. After a period of time working across Asia, Gardner published the book Witchcraft Today in 1954 and started a movement based on pre-Christian traditions with three main pillars: magic, respect for nature, and worship of a goddess and other deities.

The word wicca can be traced back to 1970–75 with roots in its Old English meaning: male sorcerer. The Old English wicca is also the origin for the word witch.

The words witch and wicca can scare those who associate them with Satanism and devil worship. There is no connection, however, and there never has been. Wicca is based on traditions, rituals, and beliefs that existed long before Christianity and what people today understand as the concept of hell and Satan.

Today, wicca is considered a form of modern witchcraft, and the focus on magic is one of the biggest differences between wicca and paganism. This magical angle was built into wicca practices from the start with ceremonial magic and rituals.

How well-versed are you on the intricacies of those connected to the spiritual and supernatural? Do you know the difference between a psychic and a medium?

What does pagan mean?

As you might be able to conclude from the definition, pagan is an umbrella word that influences or encompasses many other types of spirituality. The word has existed in its modern sense for centuries, and its beliefs have existed for even longer.

The word pagan was first recorded about 1325—75, and it comes from the late Latin word pāgānus, or “rural, civilian.” Pāgānus stemmed from pāgus, which means a “village or rural district.” It came to mean a civilian who was not a soldier of Christ and, from the Christian point of view, a worshiper of false gods.

Paganism isn’t some long-lost belief, however. Today, the neopaganism spiritual movement centers on pre-Christian rituals and traditions, as well as a deep respect for nature. Neopaganism can be traced back to the 1800s, and versions known today were strongly shaped in the 1960s in the United States, United Kingdom, and Scandinavia as a revival of nature and fertility worship. Followers have a diverse set of beliefs that focus on connection with the natural environment and treating people equally. They may worship a number of gods and goddesses, but that largely depends on each person or group’s choices.

By definition, wicca is part of the broader category of neopaganism. Spirituality, nature, and fertility are at the heart of both neopaganism and wicca. Both of these terms have helped move the modern connotation of paganism away from the negative historical Christian connotation of pagans as people who worship false gods.

The historical uses of these terms

Pagan once primarily referred to people who followed a polytheistic religion—meaning they observed more than one god. The ancient Romans and Greeks were pagans, for example.

The negative association with paganism stems from the beliefs of the world’s major monotheistic religions. Historically, the term referred to anyone who wasn’t a member of an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, and it was used as a disparaging term to refer to an “uncivilized or unenlightened person.”

The time for that sense of the word has long come and gone, and pagan is no longer primarily used as an insult. Wiccans embraced (and built on) the teachings and beliefs of paganism to form their own neopagan set of practices.

What is a heathen?

Like the term pagan, a heathen historically referred to people who weren’t Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. The word heathen is first recorded before the year 900, and the Middle English term stems from German (heath refers to uncultivated land). The first heathens were people who lived in what is now England, Scandinavia, and Germany before Christianity became the predominant religion.

Heathen is also similar to pagan in that it can be used in a derogatory way to mean someone who is uncultured.

Today, heathenry envelops a number of beliefs and practices. These go by different names, including Asatru, Odinism, and Germanic Pagan Reconstructionism. Asatru is officially recognized as a religion in Iceland with practices that focus on peace, ancestors, and equality. Heathenry also recognizes a number of gods of Germanic and Nordic origin—such as Tiw, Odin, Thor, and Frigg—as well as wights, which are spiritual beings connected to nature.

Unlike wicca and some forms of paganism, those who practice heathenry don’t put much of a focus on magic and witchcraft. Instead, gods and ancestors are at the center of the religion.

At the base of the terms pagan, wicca, and heathen is a respect for nature and multiple gods. Where the emphasis lies, however, depends on which you’re referring to.

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