Ducking Pigeonholing

By December 30, 2012 Witchcraft & Magic 32 Comments


I  have noticed a trend in the blogosphere in the past year. Many of us are trying to voice something that perhaps hasn’t had a voice before: we don’t know what to call ourselves any more. It used to be easy, we called ourselves wiccan, druid, or simply pagan, but such labels seldom fit these days. Most of us no longer follow distinct paths that can be clearly defined or we follow older cultural paths for which the names have been forgotten. Do we use witch, magician, sorcerer, spirit worker, or occultist? Why do we feel we have to have a label at all?


Labels can make us feel cool, mysterious, intelligent, trendy, lineaged… like putting on a mask or expensive clothing. Many often fall into the allure of copying titles others use simply because they sound cool. We want to fit in, we feel we have to or we won’t be respected. I see cultural labels thieved all the time because of this. The more obscure and old a label sounds, the more cool we think it is. “So and so uses this label and everyone thinks they are the coolest so if I call myself this, everyone will think I’m cool too.” This often results in an eclectic solitary using a traditional cultural label or a path label for something they don’t actually practice. Another pitfall of the glamour of labels is stringing a long line of them together with the logic that “if one label makes me sound cool than five of them in a row must be even better!” This is how we end up with the master druid initiated third degree wiccan fifth generation hereditary witch reiki master voodoo priestesses.

Labels are often taken out of context. For example, just from using the traditional Scots label spaewife for myself in my about page and blog subtitle once upon a time, it appeared on web pages used as a synonym for hedge witch or green witch and eclectic solitary bloggers started to use it for themselves. Of course, it’s not a synonym for these words and actually means seer, but research takes so much effort and it’s so much easier to appropriate a Scoto-Scandinavian label even though you’re not a seer or Scottish… or Scandinavian (insert facepalm here).

This is where getting caught up in the glamour of labels leads us sometimes; to cultural misappropriation, misunderstandings, and making ourselves look foolish.


Sometimes we find a label that really resonates with us, that describes our path as closely as we can come to. Often it’s not enough, however, or we change and the label no longer fits. We are always more than just one label. All we are and do and believe can never fit into one word and yet we try our hardest to make it so. We should really cut that out. We should stop thinking of labels as specific magical paths and more as adjectives and descriptors for our paths. It would take a lot of pressure off trying to find that one word and leave us more open to change.


The simple answer: no one actually cares what we call ourselves so why should we? Does it help us advance in our path? Does it increase our magical powers or our experiences? If we get too caught up in trying to find the right word for our path, we can waste years over it instead of living and breathing our path exactly as it is and becomes over time as we practice it. I had to learn the hard way to put more effort into what I do and believe than trying to find a name for my path that fit. Once I stopped caring about a label for it, my practice opened up before me and I was able to live and breathe it fully without the weight of a title causing me to get stuck.


Gone are the days of the set small handful of big name initiatory traditions. Magic has spread like wildfire and today there are more independent practitioners than members of lineaged traditions. Some of us outside these traditions have always felt the need to use their labels and try to match our paths as closely as possible to theirs without being initiated or trained in these traditions, but I personally think it’s a waste of time. If you’re on the outside you can never really know what the tradition is about. You can be influenced by a tradition, but it’s always more the idea and glamour of the tradition than the praxis of the actual tradition itself. In my opinion we should be looking to the big name traditions for inspiration, but still try to find our own way, our own paths.


Speaking as someone who was trained in a tradition and circles with some of the big name ones, it is just as important to find your own way even when you are initiated. It’s important to find that sense of self in your own personal beliefs and the daily practice of your magic. A good high priest/ess will tell you that as lovely as it is you’re being trained with them and learning the trad, it’s also important to pursue your own interests and beliefs at home away from the group. Think of training in a tradition as akin to copying the paintings of the great masters to better learn art — eventually you need to find your own style and create original paintings to truly become a master yourself.

I remember listening to a debate among a group of elderly wiccans who’d been in a coven together for decades. One admitted she didn’t think she was actually wiccan because her own beliefs and practices differed from the core of their trad. Another member then wondered if she should still be allowed to a be a member if she felt that way, but then the others spoke up and said they felt the same as her and did it matter if they weren’t wiccan at home if it was what they all did together that mattered and made up the coven and tradition? After all, weren’t they better for all their differences in belief and practice? It didn’t change the tradition, it only enriched their personal lives and spiritual paths. And so they’re still happily getting into magical mischief together.

If a group tells you you’re not allowed to pursue your own interests or other paths outside of their tradition, you may want to look really closely at that group and your membership in it. Close-mindedness, fear, and control are major red flags to avoid in a group. If they show up, it’s time to hightail it out of there. That said, if you’re a degree or tradition collector and have a habit of jumping from group to group, path to path willy nilly with no commitment — they have every right to be upset with you.


So what is a solution to our label woes? Instead of trying to wedge a square peg into a round hole (our path into someone else’s label), why not come up with our own names for our individual paths? Why not allow ourselves to use a handful of descriptors for ourselves that are all true instead of one word that doesn’t really fit? We define who we are, not anyone else. You can be in a wiccan coven and be a seiðkona too. You can be in a shamanic tradition and still be a witch.  You can be a Norse reconstructionist and a thelemite. You can be a witch who practices necromancy, rootwork, and astrology and is a polytheist. You can be a witch who practices spirit work, green magic, and folk magic and is an animist. The possibilities are endless and there’s a high chance there are others out there just like you with the same influences. There are no limits, only absurdity.

Eclectic is no longer a dirty word, it is reality. Just be careful not to try to melt everything together in one big mess (avoid being that crazy master druid initiated third degree wiccan fifth generation hereditary witch reiki master voodoo priestess). Or, alternately, avoid trying to find tidy little boxes for everything you do to fit into. All our paths are mosaics composed of everything we are influenced by, believe in, and practice. It is much easier to recognize you are influenced by many beliefs and paths than to try to be all of them simultaneously. Above all, be yourself, even if what you are is currently nameless. Light your candle, light your lantern, and walk your own path proudly; lit clearly by your awareness of self.

Author Sarah

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Join the discussion 32 Comments

  • Rachel says:

    I have long since given up trying to describe my beliefs. I know what they are and people who have known me a long time get what they are but in the end I just describe myself as a “plant person” because I like to work with plants (more dyeing but some herbalism too). I guess “cottage witch” comes the closest (maybe?) but I also like some of the traditions of the religion I was born into too and culturally I will always be Jewish. In the end I know what I believe and that’s what counts.

  • Robert Goode says:

    I recently settled on a term for myself. It’s nice and simple, and in no way at all restrictive: Polytheist Occultist. No explanation required, no stereotype people will expect. It gets the point across without any sort of boundaries. I dropped the term “pagan” a while ago, believing I no longer fit the term as it used now. Polytheist simply means I engage in the worship of more than one deity. “Witch” doesn’t always work either. I practice a few different(usually separate, as they tend not to mix well) realms of mysticism, and the term “witch” does not have the same meaning it does in modern, Western Europe and American society.

  • Eoin Keith Boyle says:

    Reblogged this on The Conspiracy of Pleasure.

  • Furtive says:

    What label I apply to myself matters to me, and it doesn’t necessarily matter to me what other people think of it. I don’t think the problem is the label itself, the problem is failing to change the label when it no longer fits. Personally I’ve never had a problem changing labels when necessary–they’re just like my name. I’ve gone by many names and in each chapter of my life I’ve always taken a different name to reflect my identity then. Some people might find this sort of fluid identity confusing, but this has always augmented the experience for me, not hindered it. The changing name, the changing label, is the outward reflection of an inward change. I feel aligned, if that makes sense.

    Besides, if I just said f*ck it, and came up with a name for myself … “diabosorcephemitch” raises more eyebrows than the semi-ambiguous “animist”. (On that note, there’s value in having a label that is not all-encompassing of one’s true beliefs/practices).

    Of course, I’m supposed to be working my way through the book Defining Reality by Shiappa, which talks about labels and such in the context of reality. My views might change after I’ve educated myself a bit more, lol.

  • There is much truth in what you say. Labels, which on the surface look like useful things, instead become used like closed doors, seeking to confine us within the space defined by the label. After a while instead of being helpful, they either become restrictive or even destructive as others also try to keep us coloring within the lines the labels imply. What am I? I’m not sure how to answer that question. There are too many facets to me to find any one hat that fits so well it describes all of me and I think that’s true of everyone. It’s the paths we walk that define us, not what we name them.

  • I don’t think a label can ever define the whole gamut of pagan beliefs / practices but it can be helpful to learn and stand within a tradition. I spent a while simply considering myself a polytheist pagan poet using shamanic practices. But really, this falls into the Bardic Tradition, which made me decide to take that ‘label.’ Stepping into the tradition has taken me down routes I would never have envisaged but left room to pursue my personal interests too.

  • Andrew says:

    It’s a rich problem, in the sense that identifying the difficulties of labels immediately raises the hackles of some who insist that everything be nes; and calms the nerves of others who don’t feel the names fit.

    I’m minded of the line in pirates of penzance, where the Major-General identifies that all the pirates are wearing unfamiliar but picturesque uniforms, with which he’s not familiar. “What are you??” He asks.

    The Pirate Kimg answers deadpan, “we are all single gentlemen.” And then there are shrill denunciations of the pirates, followed by exceptions and qualifications and so on.

    That’s what we are. We’re single ladies and gentlemen wearing the raiment and speaking the languages of traditions old and new. We have a “uniform” and we’re tied by bonds of mutual recognition and common-esque “purpose”… But labels? Hmmm. Risky. Better to wait until the end of the second act, when Fifth Business steps out of the shadows and anonymity to reveal our noble origins and the common theme which joins us all.

  • Yes, this. All of this. It makes me really glad that my grove and circle is like the wiccan group you described. I hadn’t worried about labels this year until I started trying to figure out how to reference myself. I wish there was some kind of placeholder word for person-who-does-magic-and-Paganish-spirituality. Witch is as close as I can get and even that . . .has specific connotations.

  • I agree completely with your post. Also, I would like to add that the question extends beyond this domain. As human beings, we seem to have an innate tendency to want to label everything: Linnaeus’ taxonomy is a fundamental in biology, and we even try to label sexuality and our psychological reality. I suppose that, beyond the fact that being able to name something gives us security by providing a sense of control, labeling and organizing concepts may just be the reflection of the way our brain encodes information. Labeling something, putting it in a box, saves us a lot of energy. Unfortunately it also has it’s pitfalls. They are in my opinion a major drawback, for example, in modern psychology, which very often uses a DSM-based categorisation of “mental illnesses”. Rather than taking a more personal and dimensional approach, this classification is based on arbitrary criteria that can lead to oversimplifications which can of course be very detrimental to the patient. But now I am digressing…. 🙂

  • I can’t tell you how much I connect with thus post. I struggled for years with terms and labels and paths. It is such a comfort being able to accept myself, my path and often, my lack of title. I am me.

  • “This is how we end up with the master druid initiated third degree wiccan fifth generation hereditary witch reiki master voodoo priestesses”

    It’s funny because its true, there really are people out there that do this and it boggles the mind. I’m not sure one person needs that many labels. Labels for me, confuse the issue. I would have said before that I am a traditional witch, but I don’t necessarily think I fit in there anymore. Unfortunately we live in a society where labels are important, a must, expected. If you don’t have a label for what you do, then you are ‘playing’.

    “witch who practices spirit work, green magic, and folk magic and is an animist”

    Strangely I think that just about describes what I do, apart from the spirit work, I’m getting there but baby steps.

    “Eclectic is no longer a dirty word, it is reality”

    I wrote a post on this on my blog because I had noticed a trend in the Pagan world of people getting downed for referring to themselves as ‘eclectic’. Truthfully, in one form or another, we’re all eclectic in our practices unless you work in a die hard tradition with very specific rules and expectations.

    I do think you’re right though, letting go of the labels opens up the door to more spiritual awareness, once you let go the burden of trying to define yourself, you will most likely actually find yourself.

    • Andrew says:

      Unfortunately we live in a society where labels are important, a must, expected. If you don’t have a label for what you do, then you are ‘playing’.

      This bit about “Playing” really resonated with me. A while ago now I attended a workshop where Ned Hallowell was speaking about his book, The Childhood Roots of Happiness (Link to Amazon US, because I like to be thorough.) As I recall, Ned’s process of development in children was pretty simple, when it came to developing new skills: (hopefully these HTML hashtags will work…)

      • Connection (someone teaches you something)
      • Play (you play with the thing you’re being taught)
      • Practice (you move past ‘play’ to really investing time and energy into getting better)
      • Mastery (you get genuinely better at the thing you’re practicing)
      • Recognition (the person who taught you, or someone of similar achievement, notices your work and respects it)

      I’m assuming (bad me) that most of us learned something of what we’re currently doing from someone else — either from books, or from friends and mentors. We’ve now moved through play and practice into some level of mastery, and maybe we have or haven’t been recognized as masters of it.

      But culturally, as a group, we’re ALSO going through this process. We’ve collectively been taught by the prior streams or currents of BTW, or OTO or GD or A•A• (sorry, don’t know how to find the triple dots) or esoteric Christianity or KBL or whatever other threads form our practices. But we’ve not inherited a complete tradition, most of us — we’ve been connected to it, but not necessarily brought all the way into it (Or maybe there is no “all the way into it” to achieve). So we’re playing, and practicing, and working on mastering (as a culture or as a group) a thing which isn’t really quite its own thing yet? How do you name and recognize a thing which is its own thing, and yet draws upon the combinations of the things which have gone before it?

      Leonardo daVinci drew a man using a parachute, and worked out the maths and physics of parachutes, five hundred years before there was an airplane to jump out of. Thomas A. Edison drew a lightbulb twelve years before there was a working lightbulb, and four years before all of the parts of his lightbulb experiments had names. Charles Darwin drew a picture of the evolutionary tree of life twenty years before he could truly articulate what evolution was, scribbling in his notebook in the Galapagos Islands.

      So I guess I’m not appalled by the idea that we don’t have labels for what we’re doing yet, or can’t name ourselves… We’re playing with the tools we’ve been given from the past, and inventing new spirit-tech and heart-tech and head-tech for mastering our own consciousness. Isn’t that awesome enough?

  • Jose Prado says:

    I agree with most of what you said but there are points I do not agree with ” That said, if you’re a degree or tradition collector and have a habit of jumping from group to group, path to path willy nilly with no commitment —they have every right to be upset with you.” I’m in Santeria and Vodoun, Wicca, and Esoteric Christianity to name just a few and I am equally loyal to all groups I am a part of. Not all people are just in it for collecting things. But the Old Pagans united and merged several of their beliefs together so even if you are in just one ‘group’ that group is composed of several others you just don’t know about. I know that you weren’t trying to say that, but that’ kind of how it came off. I’m against people using Titles they know nothing about as well, but that said those who really are let’s say that crazy master druid initiated third degree wiccan fifth generation hereditary witch reiki master voodoo priestess etc are not wrong for saying they are if they really are. If someone is an Executive/Artist/Antropologist/Poet then why not just admit they have these skills? Most people wouldn’t because it sounds prerencious and arrogant, but

    even to critize those of us who are in several groups but that at least to me looks like a contradiction to everything else you just wrote about “its important to find your own path etc etc but not too many or you’ll be a un-trust worthy person” that’s a stereotypical generalization. I’m in multiple groups because I wish to learn all there is to learn to the best of my ability. Not because I’m a flake. Ache

  • I just found you and I am very excited. I am the product of the study of many paths. Wiccan is one of them. I actually believe that all paths take us to the Goddess/God and I feel there are more similarities between paths than differences. The importance is to recognize the magic and Divinity within and do no harm. I invite you to visit my blog and I wish you the happiness and joy of a prosperous New Year. Blessings, Barbara .

  • Yup. Is liberating, isn’t it? And liberated, one can actually roll up sleeves and get to work—part of which is continually reminding ourselves to wake up and cast off unneeded identities over and over again. Love the title, by the way—Ducking Pigeonholing. Cute.

  • Kindled says:

    Wonderful post.

  • I’ve always felt a bit too Pagan to be Christian and a bit too Christian to be Pagan, and I also have Judaic aspects due to my upbringing. I also am very much drawn to Gnosticism and have studied it the past few years. I wanted a label for myself to make things easier but couldnt find one that fit. Then I realized that Christianity was founded in Judaism and is heavily influenced by Paganism and has lovely myths once we see it as metaphorical and allegorical (much like reading the great Pagan myths) so for me that is where I am.I am even a minister now – go figure *grins* -The path I am walking is as an Earth-Based, Panentheistic Progressive Christian. To make it easier I labeled it ‘Divinaturism’ because the focus of my growth is toward recognizing the Divine in the Natural World. I think labels are better geared toward cans of soup, but they do serve to help describe the contents of the vessel . Just important to remember they are only part of the picture.

  • Halia says:

    found this post integrates and – for a certain pont of view – completes your previous one. A lot of people find “comfortable” wearing a label. Is easier than looking for oneselves.

  • Erika says:

    Definitely on this train. Most of us sought “pagan” spiritual practices as a way to solidify our self-identity, but some people only get as far as “group identity” and never develop their own.

    Eclecticism is also an interesting subject: when a person is seeking a path, especially a “natural” one, why wouldn’t they take into account: the area in which they live, their family’s cultural history, their own personal experience, as well as what just interests them or “feels right”? It is narrow-mindedness that neopaganism (and associates) as a movement, and it is narrow-mindedness that cripples many other religions.

  • dragonlaurel says:

    Thank you for writing what so many people need to hear.

  • Beth says:

    This is something a lot of people need to read, and that I have been through myself. I have agonized over whether I should call myself Heathen, since it might convey the misleading idea that I’m a mainstream Heathen, and whether words such as “witch” and “pagan” were too non-specific. Finally I decided to stop agonizing over the whole thing and simply describe what I actually **do**, bypassing as many of the popular ad glamorous “buzz words” as I could. (There is an argument in Heathen circles that one should not go calling oneself a seidhkona unless others regard you as one, but I do qualify on that score, so it’s one title I feel comfortable using, even though most pagans probably have no idea what it means. LOL.) I think where many people go wrong with labels is that they use them to describe an ideal image they have of themselves that has no connection to anything they are really doing, as you pointed out.

  • I dont call my self anything, but my family and close friends call me a witch. I dont care, I know who I am and that is the most important.

  • This is a great article. Great.

  • "Big Name" Initiate says:

    This was a wonderfully refreshing and inspiring post. Thank you so much for your insights!

  • Vivianna says:

    Well said. Although I do agree with some of the other commenters that the issue is not in the labels themselves but they way some people feel ruled by them. They struggle to find a label they want to ascribe to, and hesitate to reconsider that label if it no longer fits. Or, worse, begin layering countless labels as if trying to create a pedigree of your spiritual journey.
    I had attached onto the label Wiccan in the beginning. However, it’s become quite the opposite now. The more I experienced, I found each group of “Wiccans” had beliefs that were too specific for me to agree with entirely. I now refer to myself just as a Witch – in that I follow the Wheel of the Year and believe in a oneness with nature. I use magick to help facilitate change in my life and feel that true change and power comes from within. I am no kind of witch, just a witch in whatever way suits my life at the time.
    Although I think many people get carried away with these labels, they are still helpful and should not be entirely dismissed. It helps us to find each other in a world where Paganism is still a minority religion and as of late, highly internet based. It helps us to connect and find a sense of community with people who (at least mostly) share in our beliefs. We just cannot forget that we are each on an individual spiritual journey and labels should be used to aid us in this process and readily discarded when they no longer serve us.

  • Reblogged this on lovegodbob and commented:

    I’ve seen this countless times everywhere I go. Whether I’m out and about in the world, reading through a magazine or newspaper, or simply doing research on the internet; I come across those that have “borrowed” a title without knowing it’s actual meaning and they are the furthest thing from said label. I saddens me that something so simple as a title can bring that person’s words into questioning as well. Is it something they truly wrote or is it also “borrowed” due to that there’s no link, author, or recognition given to the creator of the work.

    We all need to learn to be ourselves and be less focused on what others think and are doing and concern yourself with “self” and you’ll find it’s much “cooler” to be yourself as an individual rather than a blind sheep.

  • Merrylyn J. says:

    Might it simply be as straightforward as realizing that none of us should feel obliged to ‘explain’ who or what we are? If we are confident in knowing that our lives and beliefs are in a constant state of evolution, no descriptions or labels are either needed nor should be asked for.

  • says:

    Very though provoking. I have always struggled to find the label that fits me. I don’t know what my religion is, or my beliefs. All I know is I’m trying to live positive and spread good Karma!

  • Heather Awen says:

    This so true. The human brain loves to put things in jars and label them. Then deal with label not what is in the jar. Now when anyone tells me what they are: libertarian, Christian, witch, Heathen, whatever, I don’t pretend to know what the hell that means to THEM. So I ask. Main thing I ask is not so much what they believe but how it affects the way they live.

    In a recent dream I yelled out to some old style Wiccans having a ritual in a mall display (telling) who were bad mouthing Heathens “I am a Heathen!” However in waking life I cannot say this due to the “bad Heathens.” I write animist on forums as it is a vague term for my main ideas and it fits how I live, what I do. I also add polytheist. I DO that, I have those many relationships. But there is no way to assume anything these days.

    I say “bioregional animist in the age of globalization.” It’s a New World, Eaarth not Earth, cosmopolitan and while avoiding cultural misappropriation those of us especially in the US have many many Gods; here from so many people and places, but the ones already here.

    Glen Gordon has a great term PostPagan. Like what you are after years of Wicca 101 and Llewellyn books. I add that I am a recovering New Ager trying to deprogram myself from the Fear of thinking something wrong and the karma boogie man getting me.

  • charlotte says:

    i’m new to all of this, but i’m glad i found this page. i have been an extremely skeptical, scientific sort for most of my life, but would tentatively call myself a pantheist, even if richard dawkins thinks that pantheism is merely “sexed up atheism”…there was going to be a long explanation of how i got to the point i’m at now, but let’s keep it short: i realized scientific atheism wasn’t enough for me, but that the forces of nature were always important and awe-inspiring to me. couple this with new-found control of life-long nightmares and you have one confused and searching young woman.

    you must imagine that such a person would be highly critical of “woo-woo”, and you’d be right. i had never met a “new ager” i didn’t despise. nearly every person i’d ever met who described themselves as a “wiccan” seemed to think this meant something along the lines of devouring every religion they’d ever heard of and puking out the bare bones. i still can’t stand such people…there are some very disrespectful, thoughtless people out there…

    i don’t know what i’ll be doing and i even feel conflicted about studying the past at all (partially because i do not know my own roots as well as i’d like–i was adopted). should i simply walk out into nature for a few days of solitude and see what it says i should do to honor it? should i dig up my cat’s skull and try to communicate with her spirit? should i grow a plant with my menstrual blood?

    all i know is that there was a time in some far-away, innocent past where i truly believed i could communicate with animals and insects on some level…that i could let bees know i trusted them and in return, they would not sting…

  • lancemfoster says:

    hey Sarah- Don’t know if you’ve seen this, but thought you’d get a kick out of it…maybe you’re a “Wilderbabe”: