For folks just getting into alternative spirituality, terminology can be confusing. What’s the difference between New Age and pagan? Are all witches pagan? What does occult even mean? And where do my beliefs and practices fit into all that?
Truly, you don’t need to label your spiritual practice unless you want to. Labels can sometimes feel uncomfortably restrictive. On the other hand, knowing what common labels mean can help you find resources, teachers, and groups that are relevant to your practice, so in this post I’ll explain some of the ones that are commonly misused or confused with each other.
I want to make one important note: All of these are umbrella terms, which means for each of these labels there is a whole range of belief systems that fit under that label. Keep in mind that these are very broad and very general terms.
Also, none of these approaches is inherently better or worse than the others, and there’s no rule against combining one or more of them. Wicca could be considered paganism, witchcraft, and occultism, and many modern witchy authors incorporate New Age elements in their books. You may find that more than one of these labels could apply to your practice.
I want to start with the label New Age, because this is the one I see misused most often. Some people use “New Age” as a catch-all term for anything outside conventional, mainstream spirituality, but this is incorrect. Someone who does witchcraft or reads tarot is not necessarily New Age, and New Age beliefs are very different from traditional witchcraft, paganism, and occultism.
Modern New Age spirituality began in the 1970s, but it has roots in several 19th century movements, most notably New Thought, Spiritualism, and Theosophy.
The New Thought movement began in the US in the 1800s. It grew out of dissatisfaction with mainstream Christianity at the time and was dedicated to a “mind over matter” approach to spiritual, mental, and physical well-being. New Thought practitioners believed that the spiritual realm was higher or more real than the physical world and that spiritual causes create physical effects. (Basically, everything comes from a spiritual cause.) These are all ideas still present in New Age beliefs.
Spiritualism is another 19th century American movement and is based on the idea that the souls of the dead can communicate with the living. Spiritualists tried to contact the dead, usually with help and/or guidance from a medium. Some spiritualists also believed in other psychic phenomena, like clairvoyance, telepathy, and precognition. This is where the New Age concept of “channeling” comes from.
Theosophy (from the Greek theos, “god,” and sophia, “wisdom”) is a movement that grew out of Western occultism in the 1800s. Theosophy was focused on connecting to a deeper spiritual reality through trance, meditation, and other mystical practices. Theosophists believed that all world religions have an esoteric “inner meaning” and that all religions contain some truth. They also believed in a single, all-encompassing divine source and that the goal of human life was to return to our spiritual home. These concepts are foundational to most modern New Age movements.
Modern New Age spirituality began in the US in the 1960s and 1970s as several loosely organized groups with a shared interest in mystical, transcendental spirituality and practices like alternative healing, Asian-style meditation, channeling spirits, and psychic phenomena. From there, it spread through magazines and periodicals, then later through books. Some authors claimed their books were “channeled” — revealed to them by spiritual beings.
New Age spirituality is not an organized religion, but many individuals around the world who read the same books, have similar beliefs, and engage in similar practices.
Common New Age practices include meditation, energy work, crystal healing, channeling, and sometimes practices drawn from world religions like yoga (from Hinduism), mantras (also from Hinduism), or working with angels (from Christianity).
Witchcraft, to put it bluntly, is poor people magic. Less bluntly, it’s folk magic: the use of charms and spells to create a desired outcome. It could also be classified as natural magic — that is, magic that deals directly with natural forces, as opposed to ceremonial magic, which deals with summoning spirits. (Although some witches do call forth spirits in their rituals.) Witchcraft is typically low magic, which is simple, practical, and intuitive, as opposed to high magic, which involves intricate and complex ceremonies.
It’s important to note that the way the word “witchcraft” is used by most witches today is very different from how it was used historically. Before the 20th century, witchcraft meant magic that was done explicitly to harm people. Modern witches are closer to historic “cunning folk,” who used charms and spells to help their communities.
The reclaiming of the word “witch” is a long and complicated story, but in many cases it’s about recognizing feminine power and agency. As author and witch Starhawk says, “To reclaim the word Witch is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful; as men, to know the feminine within as divine.”
The witch label has historically been used to demonize marginalized people — not just women, but Jewish and Muslim people, Black and Brown people, queer people, disabled people, and poor people. To reclaim the word witch is a political statement that sends the message that we are powerful despite our marginalization.
Witchcraft is usually very practical. It’s not really about theory — it’s about doing what works. It’s usually pretty simple, and it’s almost always very intuitive. It can be a structured or as freeform as you make it, but there is usually some internal logic.
Witchcraft is not religious, but it is spiritual. Witchcraft itself is not a religion, although some religions do incorporate witchcraft into their practices. Witchcraft can coexist with any religion a that doesn’t have taboos against magic. However, most witches do feel that there is a spiritual component to witchcraft.
Witchcraft is culturally relative. Witchcraft in Italy looks very different from witchcraft in the Czech Republic, which looks very different from witchcraft in New England, which looks very different from witchcraft in Mexico. Even within a single country there may be many different traditions shaped by different cultural influences.
Not all magic is witchcraft. Witchcraft is only one of many approaches to magic.
“Pagan” is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of different religious faiths. These different faiths are linked by a shared history, rather than by shared beliefs or practices. Someone who practices Wicca, for example, will have very different beliefs from someone who practices Hellenismos, but both are pagans.
The word “pagan” comes from the Latin paganus, which literally means “area outside of a city” or, to phrase it slightly differently, “countryside.” This adjective was used to describe people and things that were rustic or rural and, over time, came to also have the connotation of being uneducated. Originally, the word had no religious association, and was even used to refer to non-combatants by the Roman military.
From this definition, we can gain some insight into what makes a religion or practice pagan. Pagans feel a kinship with the wild or rural places of the world, and are comfortable walking “off the beaten path.”
But how did paganus come to refer to a type of religion, anyway?
To understand the religious meaning of paganus, we have to understand a little bit about the religion of Ancient Rome. Rome (the city) was built inside a pomerium, a sacred boundary that formed a spiritual border around the city and its people. Paganus folks were those who lived outside the pomerium and may not have been strict adherents of the state religion — they certainly wouldn’t have been able to travel into the city for every major festival. They may have gotten a bit more creative with their worship of the gods. However, the word paganus did not have an explicitly religious meaning in ancient times.
The use of paganus as a religious label began after the legalization of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 C.E. Christianity would not be adopted as the official state religion until 380 C.E., but Constantine’s conversion and decriminalization of Christian worship paved the way for Rome’s transformation into a Christian state. It was around this time, as Christianity was quickly growing in urban areas, that early Roman Christians began using the word paganus (pagan) to refer to those who still practiced polytheism. Rather than referring to those outside the city’s boundary or to untrained civilians, the label now referred to those outside the Church, those who were not “soldiers of Christ.”
As Christianity spread in popularity throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and Northern Africa, the pagan label was applied to all non-Christians in those areas. The word “pagan” became a derogatory label, implying an inferior and backwards religion.
So, really, the thing that makes a religion pagan is a historical conflict with Christianity. Pagan religions are those that were suppressed or completely destroyed after Christianity became the dominant faith in the region.
This is why Norse Paganism and Kemetic (Egyptian) polytheism, which are very different, are both considered pagan while Shinto, a Japanese religion that shares a lot of common features with many pagan faiths, is not. Because Christianity never achieved total dominance in Japan, Shinto was never pushed aside to make room for Jesus.
In the 20th century, people who felt drawn to these old religions started to reclaim the pagan label. Like many other reclaimed slurs, “pagan” became a positive label for a community united by their shared history. Today “pagan” is an umbrella term that incorporates both reconstructionist religions, which seek to reconstruct a pre-Christian religion, and neopagan religions, which seek to apply pagan concepts like honoring nature and worshiping the divine feminine in a modern context.
Wikipedia actually defines occultism really well: “a category of esoteric supernatural beliefs and practices which generally fall outside the scope of religion and science, encompassing phenomena involving otherworldly agency, such as magic, sorcery, and mysticism and their varied spells.”
Basically, occultism is Religion After Dark. Virtually every major religion or spiritual movement has its own occult movement, which often takes the teachings of that religion or movement and applies them in unorthodox ways, like magic rituals.
The word “occult” comes from the Latin occultus, meaning “hidden” or “secret.” This implies that occult practices are secret or underground in some way.
In Western cultures, when we talk about the occult we are usually talking about Western occult traditions, which have roots in European Christianity and, in some cases, pre-Christian religion. (And, unfortunately, a lot of appropriated Jewish and Muslim practices.) The word occult originally referred to practices like astrology, alchemy, divination, and magic.
The occult includes both folk magic practices like witchcraft and formal systems like ceremonial magic — however, people and groups that identify as occult tend to place a focus on esoteric knowledge. In my experience, self-identified “occultists” tend to be more interested in high magic systems than in folk magic, or their interest in folk magic is academic rather than intuitive. There are also occultists who identify with modern occult fields like demonology, cryptozoology, parapsychology, etc.
One of the most influential works in Western occultism is the Corpus Hermeticum, texts on occult sciences attributed to Hermes Trismegistos (a syncretization of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth). Occult systems based on the Corpus Hermeticum are called Hermetica.
Another major influence on Western occultism is the Kabbala, an ancient Jewish mystical tradition. To be clear: Kabbala is a closed practice. Not only that, but to truly understand Kabbala requires a grounding in Jewish philosophy and culture that really isn’t possible for outsiders. Western occultism is not based on Kabbala — it is based on a misinterpretation of Kabbala by Christian magicians in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (And if you’re not Jewish, Kabbala shouldn’t be part of your occult practice.)
Secret societies play an important role in many Western occult traditions. One of the most famous of these is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was active in Great Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Notable members of the Golden Dawn include Aleister Crowley (whose writings are incredibly influential in modern occultism), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes), Dion Fortune (another well-known occult author), Pamela Coleman Smith and A. E. Waite (creators of the modern tarot deck), and Bram Stoker (author of Dracula), among others.
The Golden Dawn has had a huge influence on modern occultism. Gerald Gardner, founder of Wicca, was influenced by the Golden Dawn, and as a result Wicca combines GD-style occultism with paganism and witchcraft. Aleister Crowley founded his own religion/spiritual tradition called Thelema.
Some more recent occult movements include chaos magic, demonolaltry, and many forms of Satanism.
Some examples of occult practices are: alchemy, astrology, divination with tarot cards, using magic circles in spellcasting, calling the quarters, invocation and evocation of spirits, and creating sigils.
- “Religion Library: New Age” – Patheos
- “New Thought” – Encyclopedia Britannica
- “Spiritualism” – Encyclopedia Britannica
- “Theosophy” – Encyclopedia Britannica
- Witchcraft for Everyone by Sam Wise
- The Spiral Dance by Starhawk
- “Natural Magic” – Wikipedia
- “What Does It Mean to be Pagan?” by Sam Wise
- “Occult” – Wikipedia
- “Occultism” – Encyclopedia Britannica
- “Our Problematic Occult Ancestors” by Mat Auryn
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