I was thinking last night. I know, its scary when that happens. I was asking myself, "Self, do you practice Wicca, witchcraft, shamanism? Does it matter what you call it? After all, whatever you call it, it’s just a name." I have a large natural object growing in my front yard. It has a cylindrical trunk about five feet in diameter, it‘s about 60 feet tall, in the winter it branches are naked but spring is coming and soon the branches will be covered with green buds. Of course you know what I’m writing about . . . it’s a tree. But, does me calling it a tree make it a tree? What about when I lived in Bolivia and it was called an arbol? When we lived in the former Soviet Union we would have called it a дерево (derevo).
So, does calling yourself a Wiccan, a witch, a shaman or a pagan make you that? I think not, its what’s inside that counts, not the label that we give ourselves or other objects. However, labels are useful. They make it easier for us to put things into mental boxes, something that we are prone to do. And, they make it easier for us to find like-minded individuals. So in that regard using the most descriptive label is at least useful.
You may not agree with my definitions, but I have found them useful so here they go.
Wicca is a religion while witchcraft and shamanism are not. To most, religions are spiritual practices with a well-developed belief system that usually includes belief in some form of divinity. Wicca, generally viewed, has a polytheistic view of divinity. Wiccans worship or venerate Goddess and God by whatever name one feels called to use. Wicca, like other religions, has a belief system and moral rules. For example, most wiccans that I know have a pantheistic belief about the world . . . that everything is imbued with Spirit. The preeminent moral law for wiccans is the rede: An it harm none, do what ye will. Wiccans, like members of other religions, have a creation story, and like adherents to other religions, some take the creation story as a literal truth while others take it as myth or allegory. Finally, I would include rituals as one of the hallmarks of a religions in my probably incomplete list. We have numerous rituals, for example, casting a circle, equinox and solstice and cross-quarter celebrations.
The Appeals Court of the State of California developed a three-part test in 2015 to determine if a practice qualifies as a religion under California state law. Their three part test is: (1) It must address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters, (2) It is comprehensive in nature, consisting of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching, and (3) It often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs. I think that Wicca would certainly qualify under California state law as a religion.
Witchcraft, also known as The Craft, is a practice. Witchcraft is the practice of magick and may include a number of different activities including spell craft, divination, astrology, spirit communication and even demonology. Traditional witches are the inheritors of a family-based witchcraft tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. Modern witches who don’t descend from a line of witches may be adopted into a lineage or they may practice a form of witchcraft that may have its roots in The Golden Dawn. For me, however, the hallmark of being a witch is that one practice witchcraft . . . it’s not enough to believe. One can believe in Wicca, but one practices witchcraft.
Finally, shamanism, like witchcraft, is a practice. Tradition shamans come from societies where the role of a shaman is well developed and recognized and the activities of the shaman are valued by the members of the society. Practitioners of core shamanism borrow the practices of traditional shamans to engage in similar practices and to achieve similar results. For example, most traditional shamans take shamanic journeys (the Andean shamans are an obvious exception) to interact with entities in other realms of existence. Most shamans travel to an underworld and an upperworld. However those worlds aren’t part of a belief cosmology, in fact, the shamans that I have worked with don’t believe in the other planes of existence. Rather, they know that they exist because they go there frequently.
So what does this mean for me? Well, I’m a Wiccan who is a practicing witch and shaman. Wicca is my spiritual path or my religion. Witchcraft and shamanism are practices that I engage in to effect the world around me and to help others and occasionally myself.
Glad to be home . . . hope to meet you on the path.
PS: Thanks for reading this. I'll return to our exploration of Norse cosmology with my next post.
I'm Dr. Dave, a modern druid. I lived and worked in Bolivia and Peru for over six years, where I and was trained by Andean Shamans, and today practice modern druidism and contemporary shamanism.