A Bare Bones Guide to Understanding Pagans and Witches

Consider that you’re spending time with a good friend over a nice meal, some good wine, and friendly conversation. Your friend tells you that she is Pagan. As a matter of fact, she says, she’s a practicing Witch. What does this mean to you? What’s the first thing that goes through your mind? It’s likely that on at least some level, you found the idea of someone in this day and age being a “Witch” to be laughable. It’s very possible that you conjured the image in your mind of her dressed all in black, riding a broom through the night sky – like some Halloween cartoon.

It is also likely that some part of you was at least a little frightened by the word. As if, suddenly, this person whom you have trusted in your home, in your life, and with your friendship, has become some force of darkness. In truth all your friend has done is shared with you something which shouldn’t have to be a secret. Your friend has trusted you with information about her faith, her spirituality. If your friend were Baptist, would the announcement that she followed that path cause you any discomfort? Not likely. In the simplest of terms, your newly found (no matter how fleeting) doubt about your friend is the result of a centuries long media assault on the Pagan way of life. As you’re gathering your thoughts on this newly discovered facet of your friend, and wondering how it affects you and how you feel about her, try to keep an open mind. And try to keep in mind that your friend has trusted you with something very dear, and traditionally very dangerous. The truth about who she is. Remember, for centuries, Witches have been burned, and hanged for nothing more than their faith.

So, What Does It All Mean?

Let’s start at the beginning. Paganism is not a single religion. It is an umbrella term generally used to cover all those religions, which are not considered to be “main world religions”, i.e. Christianity, Judaism and Islam. A person who follows one of the “other” faiths is considered to be a Pagan. Many Witches, and other Neo-Pagans simply identify themselves as "Pagan" in order to simplify the conversation when talking with someone (like, perhaps you) who may or may not be familiar with the different belief systems. This, rather unintentionally, often makes it sound as though "Paganism" is a religion – as opposed to a collection of religions. Just for the record, Neo-Paganism is not the same as the "New Age" movement. Generally, Pagans are involved in a distinctive religion. The New Age movement draws its spirituality from varied sources, as almost a supplement to the religion already practiced by that person.

A What? A Witch?

A Witch is a practitioner of a nature-based, nature-revering or “folk” belief system. Witches believe that our planet should be revered, and respected, as the manifestation of Deity. Not all Witches follow the same belief system. There are many different belief systems, only some of which will be discussed here – for the sake of brevity. Some Witches practice what is often referred to as the "Old Religion". This system is rooted in beliefs, which pre-date the monotheistic belief systems, and it follows the agricultural seasonal cycles. The Earth is a living thing and therefore a gift, for us, from the God and Goddess. Many Witches believe in a polytheistic deity structure usually based upon the local gods and goddesses of their area of origin. Most Witches feel that a monotheistic belief structure is only half of the whole. If based upon only one all-powerful male God, and often presided over by only male clergy, it is unbalanced and only half-effective. Worship, for Witches, is centered on both the male and female personifications of Deity. The most widely known sects of witchcraft are Wicca and Druidism. “Wiccan” is often used, by the misinformed, as a description for all Witches. This tendency is likely due to the increased exposure of Wicca, thanks to many movies and TV shows of recent years. All Wiccans are Witches, but not all Witches are Wiccan. Think of it this way – All Baptists are Christians, but not all Christians are Baptist. Make sense now?

So, you’re sitting at the table, listening to your friend, and wondering what this is supposed to mean for you? How does this affect your friendship? Is she trying to recruit you into her cult? Is she going to try to make you participate in some scary rituals? Is she going to have to leave your birthday party early because it’s a full moon, and she’s “gotta fly”? Is there some room in her home, where she keeps snakes and shrunken heads, and all manner of frightening and evil accoutrements? Does she worship the devil? Make sacrifices? Curse those who make her angry?

Chances are that your friend told you this, because she trusts you and trusts your friendship to be strong enough to handle something out of the ordinary. She will likely have things in her home, which you may not understand – although you may never see them, even when they’re in plain sight. Your friend wants to be able to welcome you into her home, without the worry that you’ll see something “odd” and make a snap judgment based on misinformation. Your best source for information, when dealing with anything surprising or confusing, as it relates to your friend, is to go straight to her. If you see something in her home that you simply don’t understand, particularly if it has some negative connotation for you, ask your friend. She has shared her path with you, and as such, has invited you to ask her questions about anything you don’t understand. There’s a good chance that she uses herbs, incense, and oils to express her faith – and that the biggest danger from that is that she may set off her smoke detector!

Witches do not “recruit” new members. They revere their faith as a very personal choice, and a personal path. Witches also believe that no one path is right for everyone, and that everyone’s path, be it Christian, Wiccan, Hindu, etc., is a valid path. You should know that, as a Witch, your friend does not believe in the Devil. There is no “Lord of Evil” in her faith, lurking around every corner, waiting to trick a human into relenting their soul through some list of sins. She does not worship something in which she does not believe…so please put the devil-worship scenario to rest. Your friend believes in the Earth…the changing of the seasons…and the cycles of Life. There is good and bad in most things, and we – as people – know the difference. Witches believe that we, as humans, are responsible for our own actions. When we do something wrong, and something happens to us, we must accept the blame and try to learn the lessons being handed to us by the universe. When we have done right, and something good happens, we are entitled to pat ourselves on the back. And there are lessons to learn from the good things, as well.

Witches live by many rules, but perhaps the most concise and encompassing rule is – ‘And it harm none, do what ye will’. Your friend is, in a sense, prohibited from “cursing” someone who has made her angry. Witches live by the rules of Karma – the law of threefold return. Whatever we do comes back to us threefold. If your friend were to wish someone ill, she would be in line for a threefold return on those ill wishes. This is something taken very seriously by a Witch. Bear in mind that the good wishes are also returned threefold. So, it’s very possible that your friend just happens to be a fairly positive person, who wishes the best for most people. Your friend is also prohibited from making blood sacrifices. Quite obviously, that goes against the “harm none” principle. Now, before we go any further, take a good look at your friend and remember – NOT all Witches are old hags, riding around on broomsticks. Some of them are bright, attractive, outgoing people!

So, What’s Different Now?

Now that your friend has told you about her faith, what’s different now? Nothing. Chances are, that if you have an open mind, and really think about it, you’ll see that nothing has changed. Your friend has simply put a label on some of the things that likely drew you to her, from the beginning. She is telling you that she is an independent thinker, and a bit of a free spirit. She holds nature in a very high regard. She is probably the friend who reminds you to stop occasionally and smell the flowers!

So, ask your friend questions, look into her faith; research the things you don’t understand. And embrace the knowledge that your friend trusts you with such a wonderful gift.

Do Witches have a bible?

No. A bible is supposedly the word of a deity revealed through a prophet. Witchcraft is a Pagan folk-religion of personal experience. Witchcraft in the old times was much the same as the beliefs of the Essenes, Gnostics, Druids, and many other religions. The teachings were passed along by spoken word through long periods of one-on-one instruction with an Elder of the Craft. This approach was taken because the power and knowledge could be misused in the wrong hands. Therefore, by using only the spoken word, the old masters could ensure those who wished to follow the path had a true understanding and their hearts were in the right place as their knowledge of the mysteries grew. Unfortunately, when the medieval church began its attempts to convert and eliminate rival belief systems, the teachers were either killed outright or went underground resulting in much of the ancient knowledge being lost.

Do you worship Satan?

Satan is a part of the Christian and Muslim religions. Since pagans are neither Christian nor Muslim, Satan is not part of our deity structure at all. We believe that each and every human being is completely responsible for his or her own actions. To us, evil is a choice, albeit a bad one, that a human might make, not an embodied entity to blame our actions upon. If an individual chooses to do evil, most pagans believe they will be punished via the laws of karma or as a result of "cause and effect.". In other words, "What goes around usually comes around." Many Witches and Wiccans believe in some form of reincarnation, that the results or karma of past deeds can follow a person from one life to the next. This may also help to explain why terrible things sometimes happen to wonderful people or why some people seem to have been born with certain skills and knowledge. It may also explain why some people seem to lead a 'charmed" life. Some pagans believe in an after-life spent in another plain of existence. Known as Summerland, Avalon, Valhalla or simply the "Other Side', they believe that they will be reunited here once again with friends and family.

Then What About That “Satanic” Symbol?

The pentagram, or five pointed star, is not Satanic. Pythagoras used it as a symbol of health and his followers wore them in order to recognize one another. In Medieval times, some Christian knights used the pentagram as their symbol. To modern Wiccans the pentagram means many things; The five points correspond to the elements Air, Earth, Fire and Water with the top point corresponding to "Spirit". The pentagram in a circle may also represent a human with their legs and arms outstretched, surrounded by universal wisdom or the "Goddess" - humankind at one with the environment. Many Witches and other pagan practitioners do not wear the pentacle at all, but have other symbols of special meaning to them. Satanists turn the symbol upside-down, which puts the elements of Fire and Earth at the top (Fire symbolizes willpower and passion and Earth, prosperity and earthly goods) and Spirit, spirituality, at the bottom. Satanists also turn the cross upside-down. This, in itself, does not make the cross or pentagram a Satanic symbol. In some Wiccan traditions, the reversed pentagram is a symbol of "second degree" status - one who has been elevated from "initiate". To members of these traditions, the reversed pentagram is considered highly positive and has no connection to Satanism. A symbol is simply an image or mark in itself. It is the mind and the beliefs of the beholder which attribute to it a particular meaning.

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