The word Pagan is a huge umbrella, similar to the way Christian holds a whole host of various traditions. By definition, Pagan is a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. Most commonly associated with abrahamic or monotheism, but also sometimes including vedic and some Eastern traditions, just depending on who you talk to. Right there becomes the first language and label issue, the definition can change depending on who you are talking to and where you are in the world.
In general people like labels because it helps them categorize other people, organizations, events, and so forth in their mind. It gives them a sense of what to expect and parameters of what is being talked about. This isn’t a bad thing because it gives us a starting place, but we have to always have the awareness that our definition of a word may not be another’s. You would think in a world where the dictionary is literally in the palm of our hands at any given moment, that this would not be an issue, but how often do you look up words you have used your whole life? A word that you were taught meant a certain thing, or that society on a larger scale portrays in a certain way, giving way to altered definitions.
This issue of language can be an inconvenience in our daily life, it can create conflict in our spiritual world, and can wreak havoc in our magical practice. Imagine asking for a mirror spell to bounce energy back on a person, and someone misunderstands and gives you a spell that mirrors your own energy? Depending on your intention, this could go very wrong.
Religious labels are just as dangerous and maybe more detrimental to our community at large. When we think of the word Pagan, the general populous will equate that more to your spiritual practice or personal belief system. Many non pagans (and even some in the community) may assume you are a reconstructionist and practicing one of the pre-christian religions, or an old religion, and forget that there have been other pagan traditions that have emerged within the last 500 years and I am sure even ones in the past five years. Even in the reconstructionist crowds there are differences because there are no direct rules or doctrine of those traditions, so there are differences of opinions and interpretations. These things have led to infighting between groups, between people, and have ended up turning away some who were being drawn to become pagan.
Same goes for Witchcraft. According to Webster it is defined as: a: the use of sorcery or magic b: communication with the devil or with a familiar 2: an irresistible influence or fascination. Why is the devil even mentioned? Oh that’s right, because witchcraft was a label the church used. Prior to the 12th century it was just used to describe sorcery or magic. My personal definition goes even further. For me, witchcraft is the outward practice of our own power or spiritualism (even atheists believe in their own power).
As you can see language and labels can lead to divides and tensions within communities because it allows for too much misinterpretation and miscommunication. If you have been in the community long, I am sure you have seen this at some point. So now that we can see the issues, what would be the solutions? Now we head into the more complicated aspect of all of this, because we can not change others, only ourselves. The approaches will also be personal and even situational. So I will just explain my approaches and thoughts on these topics and suggest you do some reflective work on how you might also create personal changes. If we are all trying to be more conscious of these issues, open to communication about them, and respectful of others, change and peace can be found.
I have recently come accustomed to looking up definitions of words, even more commonly used ones, in order to understand their origins and their evolution over time in societal terms. By understanding this we can better decide on the best words that we use in our conversations, our writing, and our practices. It makes us more conscious about explaining what we mean when we say something and ensuring the recipient understands our meaning. The world is too big, with too many languages and cultures to keep assuming that someone will understand the way we see something without giving them some clear information.
When it comes to my belief system, again assumptions are made because I am devoted to The Morrigan. Many assume I follow Irish or Celtic traditions. Although I may draw on some of their aspects and traditions I would not consider either my religion. Understanding the history of the people and lands The Morrigan was worshipped in gives a good societal understanding. The lore, poems, art, and songs give a theatrical glimpse into how She was seen and worshipped by the people, but none of them are historical records or doctrine. I also feel you need to consider that as society evolves people, it also evolves the Gods. The struggles and daily lives of our ancient ancestors are different than ours. Yes we all have core aspects such as safety, food, protecting our loved ones and so forth, but what that looks like now is different than what it looked like then. Just as the way we worship now probably looks very different than the way people worshipped back then, primarily because we only have hints of what that looked like heaped with a bunch of assumptions and theories. So I choose to call my belief system, my spirituality. There is no name for it because it is being created as I move along my path, as I learn and experience, and the term spirituality is broad enough to leave room for its evolution instead of a box that will define and confine it.
In the past couple of weeks I have personally struggled to find the right word to define my relationship to The Morrigan when talking with others. Especially since I gave oaths to Her in dedication. I am not comfortable with the words Priestess or Druid because of the muddled terms over time. Druid would allow people to believe I follow a certain predefined religion, and I do not. Priestess has mixed connotations for me personally because there have been some that have abused the duty aspect of that title and focused on the ego and power aspects. It is also too closely related to christian terms. Nothing against them, just not me. So as I went through my dedication ritual, the name came to me – Seneschal. It was the card that kept coming up in conversation with The Morrigan, and in that card it means servant, duty, mediator, loyal, and justice. In essence that is how I would see anyone who devotes themselves because it really focuses on the service aspect. No matter what “title” you choose, the primary duty is to serve something beyond yourself, and generally also includes service to a larger community whether it be religious or societal.
When someone asks me for a spell, I tend to ask questions first. For example, someone asked me for a self-love spell. That’s a pretty broad spectrum, so I asked things such as what the specific issue was, what they thought the root cause was, what was their specific goal or outcome they were looking for. By asking these questions, it allowed me to help them in the right way. We can not be afraid to ask questions to get more detailed information in order to point a person in the right direction. The receiver also has to be open and not defensive when the person they are asking help from starts digging for details. I can only speak for me, but I am not asking to be nosey, I’m asking so I can guide you the right direction for your intended outcome.
Inevitably, at some point you will be asked what kind of witch you are or what type of witchcraft you practice. Unless you follow a certain structured practice, again the waters get muddied. Many times I see those people getting labeled eclectic, meaning they pull from a variety of different areas, but also gives it an air of chaotic magic. If you work with herbs and utilize cooking magic, you may label yourself a kitchen witch, but you may also grow your own herbs and such, which would also make you a green or nature based witch. The beauty of practicing witchcraft is that we do draw from a variety of sources and types of magic. As we learn and grow that list gets longer and longer. This is where labels get problematic. Listing all the types of magic I have done and currently do would take awhile and I would undoubtedly forget something along the way. Then we get back to defining different crafts and your definition of a green witch may be different than mine, and it is such a large practice there may be some aspects you connect to and some you don’t, so it is still painting with a very broad brush. There is nothing wrong with any of this, it is just something to be aware of and to consider when we interact with each other.
So in the end there is no blanket solution for the language barriers we encounter on a daily basis. What we as individuals can do however is educate ourselves. Learn the definitions of words and terminology. We can be intentional in the words we choose to use and how we use them. Lastly we can be patient and inquisitive when we converse with others to ensure that we understand what they are saying and not assuming we understand. These concepts do not just apply to our magical work or communities, they also apply to our everyday lives. For in the end, both our magical self and our physical world self are the same self.
Until next time, keep walking your own path!