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Pagan Dictionary

We use a lot of words: Wicca, Witch, cowan, athame, esbat and others. Do we know what they mean?

Sources for this document include the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford English Dictionary of Etymology, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary and many on-line dictionaries in various languages. Thanks also to Fritz at the UBC Department of Classics and Religious Studies.

There are two entries for each word. The one in bold is the common Wiccan / Pagan definition. The other is a discussion based on the dictionary definitions.

Please feel free to suggest to the webmaster any other Wiccan words or phrases you think should be here.

A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - J - K - L - M
N - O - P - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W - X - Y - Z


- A -

Athame (a-tha-MAY, a-THA-may, a-THAYM, etc.)

Wiccan Definition: A black handled ceremonial knife, in some traditions inscribed with occult symbols.

Discussion: The word athame does not appear in any European language. There is a school of thought that Gardner cobbled the Craft together from bits and pieces from just about everywhere in the physical and literary world, and not from a pan-European witchcraft tradition as he claimed. In the days before wide travel or cyberspace he would have been quite safe in using a word from the Far East (where he was stationed as a civil servant) without fear of someone at home recognising it. An athame is reported to be an Indonesian dagger (perhaps ceremonial). It may also be Malaysian, since Gardner wrote a book on Malaysian edged weapons. Unfortunately, it has escaped my attempts to find a copy... so far. Robert Graves (author of the White Goddess and generally regarded as an unreliable source) claims that it is a corruption of the Arabic adh-dhame (bloodletter). Until the origin is nailed down we can't say for certain what the correct pronunciation is. More research is necessary!

Our use of the black handled knife seems to have been borrowed from the Key of Solomon, an authentically old magical text. The Mathers translation just calls it a black handled knife. The symbols drawn on it should be familiar to Gardnerians / Alexandrians at least.


- B -

Bealtaine (BEL-tane, Byall-tin-ay)

Wiccan Definition: Bealtaine is the May Eve Celtic fire festival. On this night the cattle were driven between two bonfires to protect them. Couples wishing for fertility would "jump the fires" on Bealtaine night.

Discussion: Bealtaine simply means May in Irish. The correct pronounciation is Byall-tin-ay.

Book of Shadows

Wiccan Definition: The sacred Witch's text handed down since antiquity. Each student must copy it exactly by hand from the coven's copy.

Discussion: The term seems to have been invented by Gerald Gardner. Older magical texts are called grimoires.

Traditionalists believe that one's Book of Shadows must never leave your possession until death, when it must be destroyed or returned to your coven for destruction.

Most Wiccans now use their Book of Shadows as a spiritual diary and place to keep interesting articles and other documents that they collect. A Book of Shadows should be subject to the same rules as any other diary: Nobody may see it without your permission and nobody may require you to show it to them.

Burning Times

The historical period during which Nine Million Women were burned alive as witches by the Inquisition.

Witches were only burned in Scotland and in Catholic countries. In England and Ireland they were hung.


- C -

Circle

The area in which Wiccan worship and magical practice takes place. The term Circle also designates a particular group of Wiccans, as in "Silver Moon Circle".

Circle can also be used as a verb as in "I circled with him last night."

Coven

Wiccan Definition: A group of Witches who perform rituals and worship together.

Discussion: An assembly or band of (usually) 13 witches. From the Latin convenire to agree. Related to convention and covenant. The definition is silent on the internal structure of a coven. Modern ones range from casual associations to extended families, with or without some kind of hierarchical or consensual political structure.

Covenant

A usually formal, solemn and binding agreement. A group bound by a covenant. Wiccans do not have a separate meaning for this word.

Covenstead

The place where a coven meets.

Cowan (COW-an)

Wiccan Definition: A non-initiated person, usually a friend of the community.

Discussion: (derivation unknown) 1. One who builds dry (ie. mortarless) stone walls. Applied derogatorily to one who does the work of a mason, but has not been regularly apprenticed or bred to the trade. 2. Hence, one uninitiated to Freemasonry. 3. A sneak, an inquisitive or prying person. Uninitiated, outside, profane.

Opinion: The problem with us using this word to refer to a friend is that it implies deceit, eavesdropping, spying and lack of trustworthiness. Cowans are (by definition) never invited in to see a Lodge working.

Craft

Wiccan Definition: Another name for our religion, thought to be an abbreviation for "witchcraft."

The term used by Freemasons to describe their practise. There can be some (possibly) amusing consequences when a person says to you "are you in the Craft?" and you say "yes, are you?" if one of you is a Freemason and the other is Wiccan.

Crone

The third (eldest) aspect of the Threefold Goddess, the other aspects being the Maiden and Mother.

Cult

Wiccan Definition: Something evil that we aren't.

According to the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance the word cult has at least six meanings of cult currently in use.

  1. Theological usage: (positive meaning) a style of worship and its associated rituals. This is the historical meaning of the word. Answer: Yes, we are. So is every other religion.
  2. Sociological usage: (neutral meaning) a small religious group that exists in a state of tension with the predominant religion. Hindus might be considered a cult in North America; Christianity might be considered a cult in India. Answer: Yes or no, depending on where you are.
  3. General religious usage: (neutral meaning) a small, recently created religious group that is not a variant of an established religion. Often, it is headed by a single charismatic leader. Answer: Possibly, but we don't have a single leader.
  4. Evangelical Christian usage: (negative meaning) most Evangelicals would define as a cult any Christian religious group which does not accept the historical Christian doctrines (accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour, virgin birth, the Trinity, salvation through beliefs, etc). The implication is that the cult's theology is invalid. They might consider the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), Unification Church and Jehovah's Witnesses to be cults. But they would not classify Wicca as such, because it is not Christian. The earliest use of this meaning of the word "Cult" is believed to be a 1938 book "The Chaos of the Cults" by W.B. Eerdmans. Answer: No, by definition.
  5. Fundamentalist Christian usage: (negative meaning) Some Fundamentalists brand any religious group (Christian or otherwise) which deviates from historical Christian belief as a cult. This definition would include the Mormon Church, Wicca, mainline and liberal Christian denominations and all of the other religions of the world. Over 70% of humanity would belong to cults, by this definition. Answer: Yes, but so is almost everybody else on the planet.
  6. Popular, media usage: (very negative meaning) a small, evil religious group, often with a single charismatic leader, which engages in brainwashing and other mind control techniques. Often used as a synonym for "mind control cult" or for "doomsday cult." The earliest use of this meaning of the word is believed to have been in a 1965 book by Walter Martin "The Kingdom of the Cults" (revised and expanded in 1985). Answer: No.

- D -

Deasil (JE-shil)

Wiccan Definition: Clockwise. "Deosil" is good, widdershins is bad. Practitioners of the Right Hand Path always do things "deosil."

Discussion: There is only one correct spelling for this word: Deasil. "Deosil" is a misspelling of unknown origin.

Deasil is Irish Gaelic (deiseil in Scots Gaelic), hence the unusual pronunciation. Most people pronounce it as it is spelled. The first syllable does indeed have cognates with Latin, but not deo meaning god. It is cognate with deum meaning day: Deasil is "sun-wise," in the direction of the sun as seen in the Northern hemisphere. It may also be akin to Latin dexter meaning right. Many people misspell this word "deosil" which adds to the confusion. Deasil simply means clockwise and has no connotation of rightness or wrongness. See Widdershins.

Deist (DAY-ist)

Wiccan Definition: A person who believes that the Gods exist.

Discussion: An adherent of deism, which is a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion based on human reason rather than revelations, emphasising morality, and in the 18th century denying the influence of the Creator with the laws of the universe.

A Deist believes that God created the universe and then sat back to watch the fun rather than poking at the clockwork as it runs. The implication is that God won't answer if you ask Him to do something.

Deosil

See Deasil.

Drawing Down

Wiccan Definition: Inviting deity to use you as a medium.

Discussion: Although Drawing Down the Moon (assuming the Goddess) is more common, Drawing Down the Sun (assuming the God) is also practiced.

Some people believe that Drawing Down is a poetic metaphor in which no deity actually speaks through the priest or priestess. This is usually a rude shock if they succeed in Drawing Down and Somebody Else takes over.

It is possible for a priestess to Draw Down the Sun and for a priest to Draw Down the Moon, but one should be very certain of one's psychological stability before doing so. In particular, homophobes will have a very distressing time when somebody of the opposite gender gets into their heads.


- E -

Enchantress

An enchantress is a woman who casts spells by singing.

Esbat (ES-bat)

A minor (monthly) religious celebration.

See Sabbat.


- F -

Familiar

A familiar is the Wiccan term for a shamanic power animal (spirit helper).

Familiars are not actual animals and have no physical existence. A cat is a cat, not a familiar.1


- H -

Handfasting

The Wiccan equivalent of a wedding. A handfasting is legally binding if the officiating Priest/ess is registered to perform weddings according to the local secular authorities and the proper paperwork is filed.


- I -

Imbolc, Imbolg

Festival held on Feb. 1. One of the 4 Celtic fire festivals. Commemorates the changing of the Goddess from the Crone to the Maiden. Celebrates the first signs of Spring. Christians call it Candlemas.


- M -

Maiden

1. In traditional covens, the female assistant of the High Priestess. Her male counterpart is the Summoner.

2. The first (youngest) aspect of the Threefold Goddess, the other aspects being the Mother and Crone.

Morlock

This was a term used in the TV show G vs. E for a demon in human form who gets people to make pacts with the devil.

The word comes from H. G. Wells' novel The Time Machine and is the name given to the sub-human and cannibalistic underground dwellers who prey upon the beautiful but stupid Eloi on the surface. Note that Eloi is Aramaic for my god.

As far as we know, there is no real occult significance to the name and it was clearly used by the TV show because the original Morlocks were Bad and it sounds similar to warlock.

Mother

The second aspect of the Threefold Goddess, the other aspects being the Maiden and Crone.

Muggle

This is a term coined by the author J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter novels to refer to non-magical folk. Being a Muggle is not good or bad, it simply means that the person is not magical.

Perhaps we should adopt this word instead of Cowan to mean a friendly non-Wiccan.

Mystery

A spiritual or religious experience which cannot be expressed in words. A Mystery is a personal experience and may differ for each celebrant.


- N -

Nine Million Women

Wiccan Definition: Nine million women were murdered by the Inquisition for being Witches.

Discussion: First use of this figure is in Women, Church and State by Matilda Joslyn Gage, 1893, pp 106-7; cited by Cynthia Eller, in her paper Relativizing the patriarchy: the sacred history of the feminist spirituality movement, in History of Religions, 30 (3) 1991, pp 279-295 (p286).

Most modern researchers put the total number of deaths due to the Inquisition at 80 to 100 thousand. The vast majority of these were heretics, i.e. those Christians whose doctrinal beliefs were different than the official Roman ones, and included both men and women.

To put the death rate into perspective, it amounts to one person every 2-3 days taken over all of Catholic Europe. Bubonic plague killed about 11,000 people per day.


- R -

Rede

Wiccan Definition: A law, as in the Wiccan Rede ("Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill: An ye harm none, do what ye will.")

In Middle English, rede means to give counsel, to advise, to interpret, or explain. Hence the line from Tolkien's Return of the King: "Rede oft is found at the setting of the sun."


- S -

Sabbat

Wiccan Definition: A major religious celebration.

(French)Sabbat from (Latin)Sabbatum from (Greek)sabbaton from (Hebrew)shabbath "rest". A day of rest and worship.

Esbat is a romance-language word meaning "sabbath." We differentiate between major events, calling them Sabbats; and minor events, calling them Esbats; but the actual meaning of both words is the same. The original source of this word is found in two major passages in the Jewish scriptures. In Exodus 20:10 it is sanctified because Yahweh had rested on the 7th day of creation, but probably more important is Leviticus 23:2 in which the Sabbath is set aside as a special day devoted to gatherings for worship. However, it isn't clear why a religion that purports to be North-western European is using a Hebrew term for its holy days.

Summoner

In traditional covens, the male assistant of the High Priest. His female counterpart is the Maiden.


- T -

Theist (THAY-ist)

Wiccan Definition: A believer in a god or gods (as in pantheist).

Discussion: This is the word that we should be using instead of Deist to mean someone who believes that the Gods exist.

Tradition

Any of the various sects of Wicca such as Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Georgian, Seax, etc.


- W -

Warlock

Wiccan Definition: An incorrect term for a male witch used mostly by popular culture.

Whether this is incorrect depends on how you define witch. Warlock is from Middle English warloghe, from Old English waerloga one who breaks faith or the Devil from waer faith or troth + loga to lie. In later usage it means a man practising the black arts. The original meaning was oath breaker and was used as a title for Satan or a human who broke his word. Much later it became associated with witches because witches were thought to consort with Satan. The word is used correctly in the TV show Charmed.

Watch Towers

Wiccan Definition: The name for the four elemental directions or quarters invoked to guard a Circle. Each quarter corresponds to an element and a colour, though the attributions vary among the different traditions.

Discussion: The Watch Towers are originally from the Enochian branch of Ceremonial Magic. They are unrelated to The Watchtower, a publication of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Wicca (WI-ka, WI-cha)

An ancient religion based on the religion of the aboriginal Europeans involving the worship of the old Gods and Goddesses and the practice of magic.

The Middle English word for a male magician that is the ancestor of our word witch. See Witch. Incidentally, the proper pronunciation is WI-cha, not WI-ka.

Widdershins

Counter-clockwise.

From the Middle Low German weddersinnes meaning in a left-handed, wrong or counter-clockwise direction. Note that widdershins has a connotation of rightness or wrongness as well as direction. See Deasil.

Witch

Wiccan Definition: 1. A practitioner of Wicca or 2. A practitioner of the real pre-Christian religion of Europe.

Discussion: This gets really complex. In both cases the definitions of "Wicca" and "real" are (if you'll pardon the expression) religious issues depending on your tradition. Some neo-Pagans call themselves Wiccan because their religion is relevant, unlike those old Witches. Some call themselves Witches because what they are doing is authentic, unlike those wishy-washy Wiccans. Some use both terms interchangeably with no difference and some use neither because of the cultural connotations (pointy hats, evil, warts, etc.).

We aren't the only ones who are confused. In popular use a witch can be an old, ugly hag or a young, beautiful woman who bewitches men.

Witch comes from Middle English wicche from Old English wicce a male wizard or wicca a female witch. So says Webster's. The problem is in determining what was meant by wizard and witch in this context. Middle High German has wicken to bewitch (use magic upon) that might be related to the Old High German wih holy from the Sanskrit vinakti "he who is set apart" from which we get our word victim which actually means "a living being sacrificed to a deity or in the performance of a religious rite." So much for Webster's.

The meaning for wicca given in the Oxford is male magician, sorcerer, wizard related to wiccian, to practice magic arts. There are several unrelated words that could be confused with the root of witch:

  1. witan to know, from which we get the word wit.
  2. wys wise, from which we get the words wise and wizard.
  3. wice pliable or mechanically weak, from which we get the words wicker, switch and witch hazel.
  4. wicke evil, from which we get wicked.
  5. wican to yield, from which we get the word wicket.

The Old German word wigle (divination) is probably related. After staring at the period quotations in the OED for some time one gets the sense that the original meaning for witch was someone who did magic and that the magic mostly had to do with divination. With the exception of the possible relation to wih there is no religious connotation to be found for the word witch.

The Discoverie of Witchcraft (A witch hunter's manual written in 1584 by Reginald Scot) says this about the problem of definitions:

"Yea the verie word Magus, which is Latine for magician, is translated a witch; and yet it was hertofore alwaies taken in the good part. And at this daie it is indifferent to saie in the English toong; She is a witch; or, She is a wise woman."

In other words, a "witch" could be either a minion of the devil or a respected healer. If people over 400 years ago didn't know exactly what a witch was, how should we?

It is easier to say what a witch is not: A witch is not specifically someone who "bends reality" (Wice means pliable or weak in a mechanical sense and is not related to wicca). Witchcraft is not the "craft of the wise" (wicca and wys are entirely distinct words). Witch is also not related to vicar (a representative of Christ) which comes from the same (French) root as vicarious.

Witch is also a Jungian archetype that is the shadow (opposite) of the Mother. In other words, the witch in Jungian psychology is more closely related to the character in Hansel and Gretel than she is to anything Wiccan. Anthropologically, the term witch refers to a person outside of tribal structure who is dangerous, uncontrollable and works magic not in the best interests of the tribe.

So, what did our ancestors call their religion? They probably didn't call it anything. In general people do not name their religion unless there are two or more religious groups in their community. For example, Christians are called Christians because they needed to differentiate themselves from the Roman religion. What did the Romans call their religion? Not Mithraism, that was (originally) another minority faith that needed a name to differentiate it. Any name we give to ourselves and our religion must necessarily be of modern origin.

I'm no fun at all, am I?

Wizard

Someone who uses magic.

From Middle English wys wise, a wise man. One skilled in magic. A very clever or skilful person. that the root meaning wise is wys, not wicca. It has nothing directly to do with witches (though we might hope otherwise).

The modern usage of "the long-haired geek who can perform miracles with the computer network" is entirely in keeping with the historical meaning.


Footnotes:

[1] Actually, we are cats' familiars. They invoke us to perform menial tasks such as cleaning litter boxes, filling food bowls and opening doors.


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