Witch, Wiccan, Warlock, Pagan – What’s in a Name?

The words “witch” “warlock” and “pagan” have been the source of  much heated discussion of late.  We’ve talked here before about the power of words and why language is integral to the art and practice of magic. It is important to remember that this power extends beyond spells and incantations, to the names we choose to call ourselves and others. Part of the history of the modern witchcraft movement has been the reclamation of the word “witch.”  One need not look very far to see the culture of fear that surrounds it – associations with evil and ugliness that remain painful to those who see the path as something positive and enriching. Even now,  individuals who claim the title “Witch” often put themselves at personal and professional risk. We respect and support them as a community, and if we are brave and able, we join them. The same can be said of  “pagan” – a term once used to mark the wearer for damnation by Judeo-Christian societies. Those who identify as “Pagan” today, do so boldly, fully aware of the word’s historical risk.  There are those in this community who are currently attempting to reclaim the word “warlock.” It is a choice that has garnered intense criticism from surprising sources. Now, I have no interest in engaging in a lengthy discussion on semantics  or fielding fractious comments on personality and group identity. We as a community have more important things to read, ponder, and practice.  But if we are to thrive, it is vital that we respect and empower each other – although our paths may be divergent.

So, back to the title of this post: What’s in a name? Everything to the individual who claims it. Our names are our identity and our strength. The names of angels and demons, gods and men have been used to control them for millennia. Every occultist, priest and (yes) parent knows that. Whatever we choose to call ourselves, we must own it fully in order to wield its power. And if we want others to be respect us for that, we must in turn respect them.

On a lighter note – “magic” is itself a word that means many things to many people. Judika Illes gives us a glimpse in Pure Magic:

There is a power that radiates from all living beings in varying degrees of force and clarity. Different languages have different words to identify this power. The Polynesians refer to it as mana. Among the Yoruba, a prominent language group of Western Africa, it is known as axe. In Morocco, this power is called baraka and in other areas of the Islamic world some variation on that word may be used.

I offer you words from different languages because English has no specific word for this concept. I can describe the concept for you in English but I can’t name it. The closest approximation is force or power but these are imprecise because there are so many types of forces or powers. One could say spiritual force but that too is imprecise. It is a spiritual force but this force also expresses itself in very physical ways. The spiritual aspect cannot be separated from the physical. This force is a holistic power. It does not acknowledge the splits between spirit and matter that humans may perceive but transcends these divisions.

This concept lurks in the English language, perhaps for safety’s sake, demonstrating our cultural ambivalence to magic and reflecting the reality that for centuries, those who openly and effectively practiced Earth magic were persecuted and suppressed. Interestingly, the cultures that do possess an explicit and specific term to identify this force rarely possess just one generic term for magic. Their languages may instead contain something more like those twenty-seven Inuit words for snow, assorted various, specific words that describe specific acts, intents and practices that would in English all be lumped together under the category, magic. There is no one blanket word to distinguish magic from real life because in these cultures, magic is incorporated into real life. It isn’t supernatural but a part of the way natural works. One is encouraged to be aware of the various forces because contact with them strengthens, protects and improves quality of life.

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3 thoughts on “Witch, Wiccan, Warlock, Pagan – What’s in a Name?

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