One of the things I love most about the spiritual community is the diversity within it. I have had the honor and pleasure of meeting so many amazing people, all from different walks of life, united in mutual respect for one another, appreciative of our similarities, but grateful for our uniqueness as well. Because we embrace and celebrate our differences, it is impossible to paint all pagans with a single stroke of a brush. Paganism isn’t structured in the same way as early Christianity was where one collection of texts was the road map for how to worship. While this may be a liberating characteristic of neopaganism, it also accounts for the confusion surrounding it.
As a personal example, I have four sisters who have all, in their own way, embarked on their spiritual journey at or around the same time I began mine. It was a blessing as we were able to bounce thoughts and ideas off one another, shaping our own beliefs and forming our own conclusions. However, even within the same family, though we all consider ourselves pagan, not a single one of us worships in the same way. Two of us have been pulled towards a Graeco-Roman way of worship while one was drawn to Egyptian-inspired polytheism and the other Asatru (Norse). Of the two who recognize the Greek gods and goddesses, one identifies as Wiccan and the other as Pagan.
“But aren’t Pagans and Wiccans the same thing?”
No. And yes. And kind of, but not really. It honestly depends on how you frame the question. Let me explain:
The word “Pagan” was actually created by the Christian church way back in the days when militant conversion was all the rage. I don’t mean door-to-door ‘read my pamphlets’ sort of militant. More like ‘worship my God, or I’ll burn you.’ It was a slur and umbrella term for the poor peasants who didn’t know any better and worshiped the ‘wrong’ god or gods. In their view, differentiation wasn’t important. Whether you worshiped Zeus’s guys or Odin’s or if you vibed more with the worship of animals or nature-based deities, you were a Pagan, and therefore you weren’t nearly as good as everyone else.
The resurgence of paganism or neopaganism is more eclectic in some ways. Before, it was a general term for polytheism, but now it can encompass pantheism and monotheism. Many Pagans also incorporate nature-based practices or beliefs into their traditions and principles.
Wicca, on the other hand, is a twentieth century religion or spiritual tradition which pulls on various pre-Christian pagan beliefs. It was established in England and made public by Gerald Gardner. There are certainly Wiccans who ascribe precisely to the writings of Gardner or the early practitioners of Wicca, however, it is accepted that there is no central figure or organization. Though there are rites of initiation and shared celebrations such as Esbats and Sabbats, there is a growing number of people who practice a more eclectic or solitary Wicca. Generally, it is considered duotheistic (with the worship of the goddess and the horned god), but some Wiccans recognize the existence of other gods and may even worship specific deities as patrons. Many adhere to the moral code of the Wiccan Rede which states ‘An harm ye none, do what ye will’ and the ‘three-fold’ rule. The first establishes a personal responsibility of how one practices while the second lays out the consequences of abuse, warning the practitioner of retribution three times that which they committed. It is important to note, however, not all practitioners believe in the Wiccan Rede or Threefold rule. As I stated, because there is no central figure or code, there are numerous methods and ways of worship within Wicca.
As it is laid out, by definition, Wicca falls under the umbrella of neopaganism. So, a Wiccan may also identify as a Pagan and be correct in doing so. However, it would not be correct to assume that all Pagans are Wiccans. It’s sort of like this: As a former Catholic, if I had told somebody I was a Christian, it would have been an accurate claim. But if I’d gone up to somebody and told them I was Christian and their reply was, “Oh. So you’re Baptist?” that would have been wrong. Sure, the Baptist denomination is Christian, but any Baptist and any Catholic would tell you that they are not the same!
That’s a good rule of thumb to follow when or if somebody tells you they are Pagan. Consider that it is a broad term that encompasses a diverse set of religions and traditions that may look similar in some respects but are quite different. It’s probably a good practice not to make assumptions and rather, if the person is willing to speak more about their beliefs (and you are genuinely interested in learning more), ask them to tell you more about their spirituality. More often than not, you’ll find yourself engaged in a meaningful discussion and might even learn something new!