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Common Terms

Glossary Of Terms

Ancestor

A deceased person who is important to the practitioner. Ancestors of blood are those in the direct family line or adopted into the family line. Ancestors of spirit are those whom the practitioner admires or is inspired by, but who are not family members. Ancestors of place are those who used to live on the land where the practitioner now lives. Deceased people whom the practitioner knows personally may also be called "the beloved dead.” 

 

Animism

Belief that all things (or sometimes, all natural or living things) have a spirit or soul, and that human beings share the world with other-than-human persons of many types.

Archetype

In the work of psychologist C.G. Jung and mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, a pattern or symbol that is universal to human experience and that may offer access to divine reality.

Book of Shadows

In religious witchcraft traditions, the Book of Shadows is a body of liturgical writings and lore that is passed down from teacher to student. Traditionally, the book is copied by hand.

Burning Times

A historically-based narrative drawn from the work of folklorist Margaret Murray, arguing that those who were persecuted as witches during the medieval and Renaissance European witch hunts were practicing an ancient indigenous religion that had gone underground after the Roman Empire was Christianized. Some Wiccans believe that Wicca as publicized by Gerald Gardner is a modern survival of this indigenous religion. In scholarly circles, Murray's theories are seen as overstated or in some cases, fabricated.

Ceremonial Magick

A set of ritual practices derived from the Western mystery tradition (or Western esoteric tradition) that are concerned with refining the individual self, among other goals. Ceremonial magick draws on a long history of Western mysticism and includes elements of Christian, Jewish, and Hellenistic religion. See also magick.

 

Circle

In some Pagan traditions, a "circle" refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalitarianism and community. At a ritual, a circle will be "cast” to provide a container for the energy to be raised and to denote a differentiation between the ritual space and everyday reality.

Coven; Covens

A coven is a community of Pagan witches (often Wiccans) who gather for ritual. It is usually a small, intimate group of no more than thirteen that meets privately. A coven may also offer open rituals to the public.

Craft, the

A term for religious witchcraft, which includes both Wiccan and non-Wiccan traditions.

Cultural Appropriation

The adoption of elements from a specific culture by an outside individual or group, particularly at the expense of the culture being borrowed from.
 

Dianic

Refers to feminist traditions of witchcraft and Goddess spirituality where only feminine images of deity are honored, never masculine ones. Dianic practices tend to focus on the sacred power of women's bodies, particularly with regard to the menstrual and reproductive cycles. Named for the goddess Diana, an independent figure associated with hunting, wild animals, and the moon.

 

Druidism; Druidry; Druid; Celtic

A group of Pagan traditions named for the Druids, the priestly elite of ancient Ireland, Britain, and parts of what is now France. In Druidry, groves of trees, bodies of water, and elevated landscapes are associated with various gods, goddesses, and spirits. Pagans who specialize in the revival of indigenous Celtic practices and beliefs often refer to themselves as Druids or (for those to whom historical accuracy is very important) Celtic reconstructionists. See also reconstructionism.

Eclectic

Eclectic Pagans bring aspects of many spiritual paths together. Some Pagans pride themselves on the high degree of authority granted to each person to develop his or her own spiritual path. Hence, many practitioners adapt practices from a variety of Pagan traditions, as well as from indigenous and other world traditions.

Elder

A senior member of a community who is empowered to teach, fill a leadership position (formally or informally), and/or serve as a role model. Elders are recognized by their communities, rather than assuming the title themselves.  

Elements, classical

The concept of the elements -- earth, air, fire, water, and ether -- originally come from ancient Greece. The elements are thought to be substances or energies that make up the world. This idea is an important piece of Western magickal systems and also appears in some Pagan traditions. Some ancient cultures  have similar concepts, such as  the Chinese Wu Xing system, which lists the essential energies as wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

Equinox; equinoxes

The equinoxes, which happen twice a year, are days when night and day are of equal duration. For many Pagans, these holidays signify balance. Although practices vary according to region and climate, many Pagans celebrate the birth of spring on March 21 (the spring equinox), while September 21 is a fall harvest festival (the autumn equinox). 

Full moon; full moon circles; new moon; new moon circles

The different phases of the moon's cycle are significant in some Pagan traditions, especially in Wicca, where the moon is associated with the Goddess. Wiccans believe the inherent spiritual power in nature is greatest on the night of the full moon. They gather at that time to work magick related to increase, fullness, and fruition, such as prosperity or growth. On new moons, Wiccans often gather for ritual that is connected with the unseen or for goals that need a period of gestation.

Gnosis

Intuitions and information received from extraordinary sources. See also UPG.

Goddess Spirituality Movement

Also known as the spiritual feminist movement. Emerging from the political feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Goddess spirituality emphasizes working with images of feminine divinity in order to empower and liberate women (and men). Not all spiritual feminists are Pagan; some are Christians, Jews, or members of other faiths. Among Pagans, feminist witches who work exclusively with feminine images of divinity often refer to their traditions as Dianic.

 

Grove

Sacred groves have historically been among the most important sites for Pagan worship. In Druidism, trees are thought to have specific attributes that contribute meaning to the site where they grow. Contemporary Druid groups are often called "groves.”

Hard Polytheism

Belief that there are many deities and that they are individual beings, separate and unique in the same way that human beings are. See also soft polytheism.

Heathenry; Heathen; Ásatrú

The reconstructed practice of ancient Northern European and Germanic religions. Heathens devote themselves to the Norse gods and view the Icelandic Eddas and sagas (originally oral poems recorded in the thirteenth century) as sacred texts. Ásatrú is one of the better-known types of Heathen religion. For some Heathens, the historical accuracy of their religion is very important; others believe that innovations are necessary to keep the religion relevant to the modern world. Heathens who are pro-innovation may consider themselves to be reconstruction-based rather than strictly reconstructionist. See also reconstructionism.

Hellenismos; Hellenic Pagan

Hellenismos is the reconstructed practice of ancient Greek religion. See reconstructionism.

High Priestess; High Priest

Some Pagan traditions refer to their ritual leader as the High Priestess and/or the High Priest. Generally a High Priestess or High Priest has been formally trained and initiated and has substantial experience. Some Pagan groups practice shared leadership where different priestesses or priests rotate, and there is no one High Priest or Priestess.

Immanence; immanent

A state in which divinity is manifest in the physical world, and all things are seen as an expression of divinity. 

Indigenous

Originating in or relating to a specific place. Indigenous religions both ancient and modern draw their practices and beliefs from the particularities of the land where their culture developed. Indigenous religions that are practiced in a location other than where they developed are called diasporic religions. Many contemporary Pagans are inspired by indigenous and diasporic religions and the way they model being connected to place. 

Initiation

A ritual designed to adopt a new member into a group, convey a spiritual experience, cause a spiritual transformation, and/or educate the initiate in religious practice, myth, or symbolism.

Kindred; kindreds

A kindred is a group of Heathens. This term emphasizes contemporary Heathen kinship with ancestral practitioners of Germanic and Northern European religious traditions. Although some Heathen groups believe it is important for Heathens to have Northern European ethnic heritage, many see kinship in spiritual terms and welcome practitioners of all ethnic backgrounds.

Magician

A practitioner of magick, usually intellectually-oriented ceremonial magick (as opposed to practically-oriented folk magick, which is more often called "witchcraft”). 

Magick; magic

In Paganism, "magick" refers to the ritualization of one's spiritual intentions. It is often spelled with a 'k' after the usage of Aleister Crowley, a twentieth-century esotericist who wished to differentiate his practice from stage magic. Today, the alternate spelling separates the spiritual practice from the fictional magic of fantasy novels and films. Magick is not about cultivating supernatural powers, but rather about aligning oneself with natural forces to manifest an intention. In Paganism, ritual techniques that change a person's consciousness so that he or she may better perceive and participate in divine reality are regarded as magick.

Kemeticism; Kemetic Pagan

Kemeticism is the reconstructed practice of ancient Egyptian religion. See reconstructionism.

Matriarchal Prehistory

A historically-based narrative drawn from the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, arguing that Neolithic Europe was once occupied by a pacifistic, matriarchal, Goddess-worshipping society. In scholarly circles, Gimbutas' theories are seen as overstated.

Myth

A sacred story that expresses values, describes a worldview, and suggests modes of behavior.

Oathbound

Describes knowledge that an initiate has sworn an oath to share only with other initiates of a tradition.

Occultism

Traditionally, knowledge of hidden or secret things, often requiring an initiation of some kind, and usually relating to the Western mystery (or esoteric) tradition. (See also ceremonial magick.) Such knowledge requires special consciousness, usually achieved through ritual, to access. 
 

Oracle

A priest or priestess who acts as a medium for others to seek advice or prophesy from the gods.

 

Pagan; Paganism; Pagans

The term "pagan" (from the Latin paganus) originally meant "peasant” or "country dweller,” with derogatory connotations of "rustic” or "hick.” Today, nature spirituality and the idea of living close to the land are important threads in contemporary Paganism. Some Pagans also focus on reviving polytheistic systems of belief and practice, especially those that passed away or were destroyed as Christianity swept across Europe. Still others embrace Paganism as a religion that offers feminine and queer images of divinity and sex-positive, body-affirming values.

Polytheism; polytheistic; polytheist; hard polytheism; soft polytheism

Polytheism is a belief in many gods. Most Pagans are polytheistic. Some are soft polytheists, believing that all gods are aspects of one greater God/dess (or sometimes aspects of two greater deities, a Goddess and a God). Other Pagans are hard polytheists, believing that the gods are separate, objectively existing beings with whom devotees can have relationships. Still other Pagans see the gods as archetypes or metaphors for natural forces or parts of the human experience.

Queer; LGBT

"Queer” is an umbrella term for a wide variety of sexual minorities and their allies, but primarily for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT). Because many Pagan groups hold sex-positive and body-affirming values and accept queer and LGBT people as clergy, the Pagans movement has a much larger percentage of sexual minorities than American society at large. 

Reconstructionism; reconstructionist

Pagan traditions that use historical and archeological texts to reconstruct ancient religions, including Celtic, Canaanite, Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and other historical traditions. Some reconstructionists attempt to practice these religions in as historically accurate a way as possible, while others are more interested in adapting these traditions to a contemporary time and place. Pagans who draw on historical materials but are open to innovation may consider their religion to be reconstruction-based rather than strictly reconstructionist.

Rede, Wiccan

An ethical principle commonly phrased as "An it harm none, do what you will,” where "an” means "if.” See also Will, the.

Religious witchcraft 

The practice of magickal techniques (particularly folk magick, such as healing and divination) as an expression of Pagan religious faith. People of non-Pagan religions may also practice witchcraft or folk magick, but may not consider it to be part of their religion. See also Craft, the and magick.

Ritual

In Paganism, a set of religious actions, usually heavily weighted with symbolism. Rituals may be wholly or partially spontaneous, or dictated by tradition.

Sabbat

The term "sabbat” usually refers to the eight seasonal celebrations observed by Wiccan traditions, but can also refer to any formal gathering of witches or Wiccans. The seasonal celebrations include the winter and summer solstices, the spring and fall equinoxes, and the four mid-points between the solstices and equinoxes, called cross-quarter days. Many Pagans use the Wiccan names for these holidays, which are Yule (winter solstice, around December 21), Imbolc (around February 2), Ostara (spring equinox, around March 21), Beltane (around May 1), Litha (summer solstice, around June 21), Lughnasad or Lammas (around August 1), Mabon (autumn equinox, around September 21), and Samhain (around October 31).

Shamanism; shamanistic; shamanic

Shamanism refers to practices and beliefs that involve communication with the gods, the spirits of nature, or the dead through a medium or shaman. Certain groups of Pagans have specialized in reviving shamanistic practices and beliefs.

Solitary

A solitary is a Pagan who does not regularly practice with a group. Solitaries may join groups for special occasions, but the bulk of their practice occurs alone. Today, solitaries make up the majority of self-identified Pagans. 

Solstice; solstices

The solstices are the extreme points in the yearly cycle of light and dark. The winter solstice (December 21) is the longest night of the year, and the summer solstice (June 21) is the longest day. Pagans may celebrate the winter solstice by staying up all night and greeting the dawn's growing light. The summer solstice is often celebrated with bonfires.

Syncretism

The combining of beliefs, practices, and symbols from different religions.

Thelema

A philosophy associated with twentieth-century magician Aleister Crowley. Thelema is not explicitly Pagan, but many Thelemites practice forms of contemporary Paganism. The Law of Thelema states, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the Law, Love under Will.” The Wiccan Rede may be drawn from the Law of Thelema. See also Rede, Wiccan and Will, the.

Tradition

A body of rituals, liturgy, myth, and folklore on which Pagans base their practice. Within a single Pagan religion, such as Wicca, there are many traditions, such as Alexandrian Wicca, Georgian Wicca, Dianic Wicca, etc. Each tradition has its own body of knowledge, which may be recorded in a book and passed to new practitioners as part of an initiatory process.

UPG

Unverified (or Unverifiable) Personal Gnosis, as opposed to Peer-Corroborated Gnosis (PCG). See also gnosis.

Virtue Ethics

An ethical system based on the cultivation of personal and community virtues in a harmonious balance.

Wicca; Wiccan; witchcraft; Craft; witch; witches

The largest contemporary Pagan religion. Wicca is a form of religious witchcraft. Most Wiccans are duotheistic, worshipping the Goddess (in her aspects of maiden, mother, and crone) and the Horned God.  The religion was first publicized in the United Kingdom by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, and it sparked the widespread revival of Paganism. Gardner's Wicca and its direct offshoots (now often called "British Traditional Wicca” in North America) have inspired dozens of loosely related Wiccan traditions, which continue to proliferate today. See also Burning Times, the and Rede, Wiccan.

Will, the (or true will)

A unifying intention that expresses a state of alignment and personal contact with divinity; the unfolding purpose of a human life in conversation with the divine. Associated with Thelemic philosophy.

Witch

A practitioner of witchcraft (usually Pagan). Many Wiccans and some other Pagans call themselves witches in solidarity with those who were executed during the European witch hunts of the medieval and Renaissance periods. Some believe these "witches” were practicing an ancient indigenous religion. Other Pagans believe this narrative is exaggerated, but they use "witch” as a descriptive term for their magickal practices. See also Burning Times, the and religious witchcraft.

Witchcraft

See religious witchcraft.

[content adapted from materials prepared by Christine Kraemer for The Pluralism Project and the book Seeking the Mystery]

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