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Our Many Names: Pagan, Witch, Wiccan.....

By Grove

M. Macha NightMare's article "The 'W' Word: Why We Call Ourselves Witches" in RQ explained why she calls herself a Witch. She was adding her voice to a discussion begun by Sam Webster, "Why I Call Myself a Pagan."The following article continues the discussion by exploring the plurality of names the author uses and the names favored within the Vermont Witchcamp community.
Click on chart for larger-print version

In her article, Macha issued a passionate call for using the word Witch, for not hiding behind any respectability attributed to Wicca, and for evoking the power of the name.

And she is right. "Witch" invokes power and is therefore potentially dangerous and subversive. Wicca, which has historically meant British traditional craft with its polarities and initiations, has come to mean a religion, a more respectable practice than Witchcraft. (Of course, it is Witches who are Wiccans but that isn't the point here.) Macha powerfully evoked connections to one's own womanly center, to women of the past, to the power of the truth. She argues convincingly for wanting respect, not respectability. I could feel the pull of righteousness, of reclaiming the term Witch and using it in every possible circumstance.

Back to My Reality

Then I came back to my reality. It is 1999 and I have to choose my battles. Do I think that using "Witch" exclusively is the best spiritual or political tactic for me? For what purpose? In what context? At what cost? A large part of the art of being a Witch is traveling between the worlds; while I used to see this as moving between spiritual realms and physical reality, for me it has also come to mean traveling between wildly varied social contexts.

As a Divinity School student, I took courses at Harvard Business School. When I came out as a Witch in a class on global business management, I didn't use that term. I described my Earth-based spiritual practice. Does that mean I was pandering to respectability? I don't think so.

How about at the national management conference I attended, where I publicly critiqued a presentation from what I called an eco-feminist perspective? I gave people an intellectual framework for my perspective, and I was

somewhat surprised at the shock that reverberated in the room. Not too many eco-feminists in management... yet.

And then the subject almost came up with a group of twelve-year-old girls from a South Boston housing project. I didn't feel at liberty to fully express myself there, partly out of concern for my employment.

This Winter I will be presenting a discussion on the growth of Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States at the Council for a Parliament of World Religion's meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. I credentialized myself with a publication, a graduate degree, and by calling myself a priestess of Feminist Wicca. Witchcraft in Africa is a different entity than the European-based construction; to label myself as a Witch might evoke power, but I believe it would have closed more minds than I hoped to open with the presentation. So I use my own term, Feminist Wicca, which I hope evokes both myself as creative source and authority, and a religion of Earth-based Craft.

I am willing to vary my terminology, and am relatively comfortable as a ritualist, a Witch, a Wiccan Priestess, an eco-feminist, a Goddess worshiper, a practitioner of feminist Earth-based spirituality, among other things... Should I require myself to do the political work of reclaiming the word "Witch" at every turn? Only if I am pandering to some notion of purity and perfection. All of this is to say that I do take Macha's position very seriously; she is right and I am glad for all of those who are out as Witches all of the time. I just want room for my efforts to count too. It takes people with many strategies from many places in the political spectrum to make meaningful change happen.

What About "Pagan?"

Sam Webster's argument is similar to Macha's. He suggests that reclaiming the term "Pagan" can enhance our communality while allowing for difference: "We have become what our detractors feared us to become. We, the inheritors of the traditional cultures of the past, have become a single, though not united, heterogeneous religion. We are Pagan." I agree with him; a broad term that can encompass our differences is very useful. In the Vermont Witchcamp, we are certainly heterogeneous, and we do form a single community for at least that intensive week of ritual; we may even be united by the end of the week, but only slightly more than half of us consider ourselves Pagan.

In a survey of participants in the Vermont Witchcamp, I asked about how we label ourselves. I didn't want to box people in, so I offered them a long list of identifiers, asking for all that currently apply, with space to write in more. Now at a Witchcamp, you might assume that mostly Witches would come, and since Pagan is a larger umbrella term, we would all check that off too, right?

Wrong. The survey on page 5 shows the results, based on 67 responses (out of 110 surveys given, which is a huge return rate).

So at this Witchcamp, less than 60% of us consider ourselves Witches, and less than 60% consider ourselves Pagans. And almost half of us consider ourselves Wiccan. Most of us have multiple strands in their religious identities (people averaged over 4.5 identities each), and 34% of us actively dislike labels. Even with all the Wiccan identification, there is only one Gardnerian and four Ceremonial Magicians, suggesting that the term "Wicca" is being used more as a general term than referring to specific British Traditions. Overall, 80% of campers are willing to be identified as at least one of either Witch, Pagan or Wiccan. But this is as close to a common name as we get.

And if that is as close to unity as we get, that may be just fine. It seems to me that names in the sense of categories for identity will never be tremendously comfortable for us. We won't be finding a cohesion in our naming. The question then is how do we honor our particularity as individuals and our collective particularity as a cohesive spiritual tradition? I do think the term "Pagan" is useful here. All traditions need to honor their particularity, to create a container that will hold their community. Many religions use sameness of creed and habits of practice as their unifying threads; ours is a different challenge, that of weaving more loosely and still having a coherent community. Eclectic is an evocative word that I think accurately reflects our spiritual community (even though only 12% selected it); it is rooted in the concept of collecting. We are weavers of many strands, both individually and collectively, and we need to stand together.

Like Webster suggests, maybe we don't need the oneness that unity implies, as long as we see ourselves all as belonging to a single, broad spiritual path. I don't recall any friction over identities at camp itself. Even though when I asked people to select their one primary identity, I got 26 different ones. That's a lot for 67 respondents. There are many patterns of repetition and overlap in our plural and diverging identities. The energy that we generate is generally cohesive, and the community is accepting. Conformity is not taught, and evidently we practice coherence across diversity better than we may have realized. We come together to do ritual: that community action in itself perhaps provides the best container for our similarities and our differences.

Grove is a Witch, a business woman, and a Reclaiming-style teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Comments, compliments and encouragement can be sent to

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