A guide to common myths and cliches about Pagans and Witches

Pagans, especially Wiccans and witches, are often portrayed negatively within the media. This is typically due to a lack of understanding and poor research, rather than deliberate bias.

We acknowledge that journalists are there to report the news, and are not there to be our mouthpiece. We are also aware that journalists prefer to interview Pagans who provide colourful quotes and material for ‘offbeat’ or humour articles. The Pagan Awareness Network exists to educate the broader community about Pagan beliefs and practices, not to entertain or seek attention for attention’s sake. This is the basis upon which we talk to the media.

We provide comment on current media issues relating to Pagans in Australia, and can provide information about Pagans, Paganism and the Pagan Festivals. We are also available for interviews related to pagan and interfaith topics.

Here are the top 10 issues we have with poor or inaccurate media coverage:

The word 'cult' popularly connotes a religious or quasi-religious group that is usually led by a charismatic figurehead, and that employs doctrine and practices that erode the personal autonomy of its followers and, tends to isolate them from the mainstream community.

In stark contrast, Pagans do not have a leader or figurehead, or any central organising structure. Pagan beliefs and practices encourage people to think for themselves and do not emphasise 'right beliefs' or adherence to doctrine. Pagans live within the broader community and do not segregate themselves… and we don’t try to convert others. With this in mind Paganism can be viewed as the opposite of a cult, as the term is popularly understood.
You’re assuming that the witchcraft practiced by some Pagans is equivalent to the ‘witchcraft’ accusations of the Middle Ages, or the ‘witchcraft’ made popular by Walt Disney. And maybe you are assuming that Satanism is just another version of the same thing. But by associating Pagans with Satanism (directly or indirectly), you are continuing the stereotype that there is something sinister, or even illegal, about our beliefs and practices.

The main reason witches are associated with the Devil in popular culture is that in the 12th Century the Catholic Church gave descriptions of Satan that closely resembled pagan nature gods such as Pan, Herne and Cernunnos – the horns, the cloven feet, etc. This was intended to (quite literally) demonise the indigenous spiritual traditions of Europe that Christianity was attempting to eradicate. These descriptions have no Biblical basis, but some churches seem happy to keep promoting them.

In fact, Paganism and Satanism are distinct and separate belief systems. It is like doing a story on Buddhism and asking a Scientologist to be involved. The concept of an evil force or presence in the world is Abrahamic (Christian/Jewish/Muslim) in origin. To most Pagans, including witches, the existence of Satan makes no sense in an earth-centred belief-system.
Unfortunately, there are journalists who seriously think that the Christian clergy are a source for genuine comment about Paganism. Or, they belong to the school of journalism that says: create the controversy, report the backlash, and then editorialise the balanced view.

However we notice that the media doesn’t ordinarily invite church leaders to comment on stories about, for example, the Hindu community or Muslims, even though many good Christians and church leaders disagree with their beliefs and practices also. Paganism is a legitimate spiritual pathway, with many honest, everyday people involved in it. Why not look to members of the Pagan community for comment?
These are controversial terms and there is disagreement over their use even within the Pagan community. It is like saying there is a ‘good’ Buddhism and an ‘evil’ Buddhism – the distinction makes no sense when applied to an earth-centred tradition.

Due to public misconceptions surrounding witchcraft it has been useful for people to refer to themselves as ‘white witches’, especially those who run a business and want to engage with the general public without accusations of devil-worship. Historically, the reason witches would refer to themselves as ‘white’ was because they were advertising their services as curse-breakers and healers. Sometimes those who are very new to Paganism may identify with the ‘white witch’ stereotype until they come to understand that a person’s actions determine their character and not their spiritual beliefs.

Like the wider community, the Pagan community frowns upon inappropriate, illegal and unethical behaviours. We don’t assume someone is good just because they identify themselves as Pagan. We hope that you won’t assume someone is evil just because they identify themselves as a witch. Every individual should be judged on their own merits.
We are quite capable of having a laugh at ourselves, but our sincerely held beliefs and practices are a different matter. It is upsetting when a Pagan takes time to explain their spirituality to a journalist only to discover the article ends up filled with old clichés and devoid of any comment of real value. It makes many Pagans not want to talk to the media, and that is bad for journalists in the long run. Also, witchcraft is just one Pagan tradition among many. There is a diverse and colourful community out there brimming with enlightening and interesting stories to share, if you can get past the ‘humorous’ clichés to ask the right questions.
This is another hangover from centuries ago. The idea that a Pagan ritual is just an excuse for debauchery and ‘sin’, and has no spiritual value, is a leftover from the early Church which sought to demonise the indigenous traditions they replaced.

Most Pagan ceremonies are family-friendly: you could take your own child to them quite happily, and see nothing inappropriate. A few rituals are adults-only because of the overt symbolism they contain – life, love and fertility are important aspects of earth-centred spirituality.

Some adult-only groups deliberately work unclothed, as a way to be free of poor body-image and shame caused by societal pressures, and as a symbolic stripping away of false values within a sacred pace. Experienced Pagans who work in this way find nothing sexual or prurient about doing so.

Most Pagans have ritual clothes that they wear for their ceremonies, and some simply wear ordinary street clothes.

The vast majority of Pagans are monogamous, and take their intimate relationships very seriously. Many are parents themselves. Sexuality is considered sacred by nearly all Pagans, and coercion or abuse of any kind is regarded with universal revulsion.
Pagan beliefs and practices are no more dangerous than those of Christians, Jews, Hindus, or Buddhists – or any religion you care to name. The idea that Paganism is 'dangerous' is the result of ignorance and misunderstanding.

Certain faith communities, notably evangelical Christian churches, have a vested interest in creating moral panics regarding what they call ‘the Occult’. Occult literally means “hidden” and it is the lack of knowledge about Pagan practices that create misunderstandings.

Pagans may utilise methods such as trance and meditation to enhance their understanding of the Divine. Pagans believe in personal responsibility and in living a balanced life – just as nature is balanced. If you hear about a specific Pagan practice that you believe is dangerous, then we would also like to know about it. We do not condone activities that would cause harm to any individual.
Halloween (properly known as All Hallows Eve) has its origins in the Celtic festival Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. This time of year was considered the most appropriate time to honour one’s ancestors and the spirit world. Few Pagans in Australia are interested in observing Samhain on October 31st (in the late spring) as it doesn’t fit the seasonal cycle that we observe. Instead, most Australian Pagans celebrate Beltane at the end of October, a festival that celebrates fertility and growth. We observe Samhain at the end of April as the days shorten.

By associating Pagans with modern commercial Halloween celebrations, you are implying that we, and our beliefs and traditions, belong in the realm of costumes, monsters and make-believe, rather than being a ‘real’ religion. Come visit at winter solstice instead.
The New Age movement is an eclectic mix of material drawn from Theosophy and Eastern traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Tantra and Yoga. Paganism, on the other hand, is a reinvention or renewal of indigenous European traditions.

Some pagans practice new-age techniques. Some new-agers engage with earth-centred spirituality. Individuals may overlap, such as a catholic who likes Yoga or Buddhist meditation, but that doesn’t make the pathways the same thing.
Revived, reconstructed or reinvented? Yes. Created? No.

Interest in survivals of indigenous European spiritual traditions can be traced in the English-speaking world to the Romantic Movement of the 19th Century, and poets such as Keats, Shelley etc. Later, authors such as Charles Godfrey Leland (Aradia, Gospel of the Witches), Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough), Robert Graves (The White Goddess) and Jules Michelet (La Sorciere) all documented – with varying degrees of academic rigour – various aspects of Pagan folklore and spirituality known during that period.

In the non-speaking English world Asatru and other ethnic traditions were quietly practiced as folk traditions even in areas that were nominally Christian. Romuva even survived oppression during the Soviet era.

It is important to remember that the Pagan traditions are diverse in origin. Wicca was made popular in the 1950’s by Gerald Gardner, but many of the other pathways have roots in the beliefs of Germanic and Nordic peoples, Greek and Egyptian peoples, and Celts, all cultures that go back thousands of years.
This is another Hollywood stereotype. Witches can be male and female.

Authorities disagree as to whether the word was ever used in indigenous Scottish witchcraft traditions. But in Old English the word ‘Waerloga’ meant ‘oath-breaker’ or ‘liar’. Referring to someone as a warlock is unlikely to win you friends in the Pagan community.
We’ve saved this for last because we find this error one of the most commonly seen: referring to someone as a “self-proclaimed Pagan Priestess”, “self-styled witch” or similar. Journalists never refer to someone as a “self-proclaimed Christian” (or insert another religion of your choice.) We see this as a double-standard, and mockery thinly disguised as serious journalism. It is an instant value judgement that our beliefs are not to be taken seriously. But what is the objective difference between a Pagan hand-fasting and a Buddhist festival, or a Catholic Mass? All of them have strange clothing, chanting, candles and incense, and ritual implements. So why treat us any differently?

People who practice a nature-based religion face enough prejudice and ignorance without the media adding to it. All we ask is that you treat us with the same respect afforded to people of other more well-known faiths. Please make the effort to contact us, accurate information is just a mouse-click or a phone call away.