Ask a Witch
What is a witch? What is witchcraft? These two questions don?t have easy answers. The word witch is a very emotionally charged word, bringing up conflicting images across the centuries. It is hard to understand which image, if any, is correct.
For most of the Western world, the word witch evokes the villain of many fairy tales. We watch the old hag giving the poisoned apple, brewing harmful potions, eating children, and casting curses. At Halloween, stores sell decorations of witches, old ugly women with green faces and pointed hats riding around on broomsticks. Although these are familiar portraits, they are not the first. Because of humanity?s fear of that which is different and mysterious, the witch was resigned to the world of children?s stories, to make the folk stories of witchcraft impotent from the realm of make-believe. If only children believed in witches, then the power of the witch would no longer be a reality, but a fantasy. Unfortunately, fictionalizing witchcraft was not the only way humankind dealt with its fear.
If you turn back a few hundred years, you can see the word witch all across the records of one of Europe?s greatest holocausts, the witch trials. Men and women were persecuted and killed for being different. Some call it the Burning Times, because many were put to death by fire, burnt at the stake. Typically, history books gloss over this particular bit of history, but it is every bit a part of us, as relevant to our modern cultures as wars of conquest.
At the top of the list of victims were those accused of practicing witchcraft. The ruling powers of the time had their own ideas about witchcraft, spreading stories of black masses, sacrifice, and contracts in blood signing souls over to the Devil. These stories are the roots of the children?s fairy tales. The vast majority of the condemned were not practicing ?true? witchcraft. Some held the teachings of the wise women and cunning men of the tribes, a knowledge of healing herbs, remedies, midwiving, and simple charms. We call such skills old wives? tales, but they have endured because there is truth to them. We don?t know how many of the accused and condemned were actually practicing what is now called the Old Religion, the way of the witch.
If you turn back even further, to cultures whose histories were not often written down, you find a different kind of witch. This witch was not shrouded in the darkness of fear and fairy tales, but in the darkness and light of the Goddess. This witch was revered as a healer, teacher, leader, and wise one. The image of the witch inspired the same reverence that a priest or minister does now in modern culture, for the ancestors of modern witchcraft were the priestesses and priests, the seers and advisors living a spiritual life by tuning into the forces of nature, the tides of the seasons, and the cycles of the Moon. They held a kinship with the plants and animals and, in essence, all life. Their teaching and histories were kept in the oral tradition, holding the myths and magick of the culture.
Modern witches focus on this particular root in the witchcraft tree. Those claiming the name and title of witch are truly reclaiming and building on the image of the witch from these ancient days. If you really want to know what the words witch and witchcraft mean as we move into the next century, look at the growing movement of modern witches.
If you ask a witch what he or she means by the word, you will get as many definitions as there are witches. And yes, witches can be both women and men. I?m a man and identify myself as a witch. Male witches are not called warlocks. The word warlock can be traced from Scottish, Old English, Germanic, and Indo-European roots and is now generally regarded to mean ?deceiver? or ?oath breaker? to those involved in the craft. Such a title was probably associated with witchcraft by those who wanted to defame the practice.
When I began my journey into this wonderful world, I was taught that the root of the word wic, or wicca, means ?wise,? for witches were the keepers of the wisdom, evolving into the images of wise women and wizardly men. Another definition was ?to bend and shape,? meaning those who practiced witchcraft could bend and shape the natural forces to do their bidding, to make magick. The word witch is actually considered to be Anglo-Saxon in origin, and some feel that only those who are practicing European traditions, or more specifically Celtic, Saxon, or Germanic traditions, have the right to claim the title witch. The entomology of the word can possibly be traced back to Sanskrit and the earliest Indo-European languages, although this could be a popular folk entomology used by many modern witches. The Middle English word wicche is traced back to the Old English wiccan, meaning ?to practice witchcraft.? Male and female witches were distinguished through the words wicca and wicce, respectively. In Middle High German, wicken means ?to bewitch or divine the future.? In Old German, the word is traced to wih, meaning ?holy.? From the Old German to Old Norman, we have the word ve, meaning ?temple.? Notice an interesting shift from the W sound to the V sound, but notice the similar shape of the letters. The letter double U actually looks more like double V in our alphabet. In French, the letter is called doublevay. The further back you go, the further away you get from the stereotypical witch and to a word of sacredness and spirituality. Now you are getting to the true meaning of witch.
In modern English, witch is used to refer to both men and women. Wicca refers to the modern revival of witchcraft. After the witch trials and persecutions, what remained of the teaching went underground. Other teachings were lost forever, but the practices were revived and the surviving traditions came to light in the twentieth century. In several modern traditions, witchcraft refers to the practice and art of the craft, such as spells, while the religion is known as Wicca. Though you can make a strong distinction between the definitions of witch and Wiccan, or Witchcraft and Wicca, most practitioners accept both words and identities. If you are not sure what to call someone, ask them or see how they refer to themselves.
One of the first definitions I learned from my early teachers, trained in the Cabot tradition, was ?Witchcraft is an art, science, and religion.? A witch is one who ?lives the art, science, and religion of witchcraft.? You might find this definition strange, as did I, because it brings together some seemingly conflicting ideas. This definition shocked me, because I considered myself a man of science. I was studying chemistry and probably would have pursued it if my experience with magick hadn?t inspired me to pursue my more creative side. At the time, I was very much a ?prove it to me? kind of guy, giving no one an inch unless they could back up their statements. And I found in my witchy friend someone who could. She explained to me the theories behind spells and psychic powers. I wasn?t sure I agreed, but it did intrigue me enough to not dismiss it as ?New Age kookiness.? Then my friend introduced me to one of the most advanced scientific ideas I had encountered at the time, quantum physics. I didn?t understand how physics and witchcraft were related until she drew corollaries between ancient philosophies and modern, cutting-edge science. From her viewpoint, she was waiting for modern science to catch up to the ancient truths. The more I learn, the more I am inclined to agree.
For the longest time, I ignored the other facets of the definition of witchcraft, namely art and religion. I focused on the science of the craft. I looked at witchcraft as an experiment. The experiment yielded wonderful results, but I resisted the other meanings of the tradition. Regardless, they led me to explore myself and my spirituality.
Witchcraft is an art. It is a system based on the cycles of life. Life is change, plain and simple. Change encourages new expressions of the same patterns and energies. Change encourages creativity. Even though two witches can say the same exact words of a spell, each does it differently, each brings his or her own personal nuances, intentions, and inflections. More often than not, witches would probably write their own spells, creating a personal tradition. Each witch works with the same principles based on the science of witchcraft, but they express it quite differently, elevating the craft to a very beautiful art form. The poetry of magick can bring a tear to the eye and evoke our highest emotions. Song, chant, drumming, instruments, poetry, and drama are used in ritual. Whatever the creative expression, no one can doubt that witchcraft is a form of art once they experience it.
Lastly in our threefold definition, witchcraft is a religion. In fact, it is called the Old Religion, for many trace their tradition?s roots back to the early Mother Earth goddess cults of the Paleolithic era. Since I have been teaching witchcraft I felt the need to change the definition slightly to ?science, art, and spirituality.? The word religion can conjure up some discomfort in those who are seeking witchcraft as an alternative to the more dogmatic religions. Spirituality, to me, carries a gentler connotation to the original meaning of religion. When I say witchcraft is a spirituality, I mean it is a spiritual path. You walk it for nourishment of the soul, to commune with the life force of the universe, and to thereby better know your own life. Misunderstandings surround those new to the path because of television, movies, and other stories. People do not realize that witchcraft is a daily commitment to renew yourself in the cycles of the Earth, to synchronize yourself with the powers of life. It is a path to enlightenment. Living life as a witch is no easy task.
Certain spiritual aspects of witchcraft set it apart from other traditions. First, it is a nature-based spiritual practice. Divinity in all things is recognized, from the land, water, and sky, to plants, animals, and people. All material things are seen as an expression of life, as the divine. Witches are often involved in environmental reforms and animal-rights groups because of this belief.
Witches are polytheistic, meaning we worship more than one deity. We recognize the spirit of life running through all things, but believe it expresses itself through a multitude of faces. I like to think of it as looking at a giant, brilliantly cut diamond with many facets shining, each an expression of the one diamond.
Witches focus on divinity in the form of male and female energies, gods and goddesses. The prime focus of many traditions is the Great Mother, the primal creative goddess as embodied by the planet Earth. The Goddess is also seen in the Moon, the night, and the oceans. She is portrayed in the modern craft as the Triple Goddess, one who is three in her aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. These faces correspond with the changes in the Moon and seasons. The Goddess? energy is vast, portrayed as loving, kind, and life giving at certain times, while dark, warrior-like, and vengeful at others.
Her consort, the God and Good Father, has been depicted as the sky, the Sun, and vegetation, or as the animal lord. Like the Goddess, the male aspect of divinity has many faces. He is warrior and protector, king and judge. The God can reveal the secrets of magick and illumination or surround you with darkness to force you to face yourself. The God is usually dual in nature, in the form of the Lord of Light and the Lord of Darkness, though some of his images cannot be put into these categories. He presides over the year as the life giver in the fertile months and the life taker in the waning year.
From these two beings spring all the deities of myth. Groups of goddesses and gods from a particular culture, called pantheons, were created. The pantheon we are most familiar with in the West is the Greek, taught in classical mythology classes and found in many modern reinterpretations. The Greek and the later Roman pantheons were not the only ones, nor the first. The ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Celts, Norse, Africans, and Hindus all had their own pantheons. Each had some type of mother goddess and father god. Then the subtle differences became more distinct. Each had deities to preside over different realms of the earthly domain. One was for the oceans, and another for the sky. Gods and goddesses would rule the Underworld, the sky kingdom, agriculture, animals, healing, the Moon, the Sun, stars, travel, poetry, and divination.
In psychological terms, we call these common visions archetypes. Archetypes are primal images that can be found across many different cultures. They exist in our collective consciousness. Psychologist Carl Jung popularized the term archetype, but they existed far before his identification. Each culture had individual names for an archetype, as represented by a different goddess or god. Each culture wove stories and myths involving this being, but the basic concept is the same. To those who work with the archetypes, they are living, conscious energies, beings of great power. Modern witches understand the concept of archetypes, but know these powers through personal, spiritual experiences. The common belief is that archetypes are primal beings of an almost unknowable nature, but they express themselves through god forms, the individual descriptions and personalities of the gods of myth. The god forms act like a mask. The primal mother archetype exists without borders, but she expresses herself as Gaia in the Greek tradition, Danu in the Celtic tradition, Isis to the Egyptians, and Pachamama to the Incans.
Most mainstream religions, particularly the Judeo-Christian traditions, are monotheistic, acknowledging only one god: theirs. Some feel these traditions focused on the masculine vibration of the divine and saw it as the one and only source of life. In our diamond analogy, they are looking at the brilliance of the whole diamond, but are blinded to look at the individual facets. Or they are fascinated by one facet of the diamond, one god, and exclude all else. The spiritual ancestors of modern witches were in a position that seems unique to us today. Because of their polytheistic nature, they could recognize the gods of another tribe, land, or culture as different expressions of their own gods. They could see the diamond as a whole as well as the individual facets. As we look to the Great Spirit at the center of the diamond, witches remember that we, too, are facets of the diamond. Like the trees, oceans, and animals, we are expressions of the divine, the Goddess, God, and Great Spirit.
Another great definition of witch is ?healer.? In the ancient cultures, people went to the priestesses and priests for healing. At the time, healing encompassed much more than our modern medical profession. Modern medicine is wonderful in many ways, but in these ancient times, healing was a process involving the mind, emotions, and spirit as well as the body. In short, healing was an energetic process. We are now coming full circle with the rise in popularity of holistic and alternative treatments. A healer was one to counsel, advise, and minister to the spiritual balance of the individual or tribe, as well as do ritual, divination, and hands-on healing. You will probably find many witches now involved in the healing arts, traditional or otherwise, because helping others is such an important part of the practice of witchcraft.
The last definition of the word witch that I will present to you goes hand in hand with the healing arts. It is also my favorite identity. A witch is ?a walker between the worlds.? This was the first hint I got at the rich shamanic tradition found within the teachings of witchcraft.
Due to a revival of interest in Native American practices, many people associate the word shaman with the medicine man of a tribal people. That is true. Shamans are spiritual leaders, but that is not the entire picture. The term originated in Siberia, but has been applied to native practices throughout the Americas and more loosely to practices across the world. The shaman believes in nonphysical, spiritual realms and learns to send his or her spirit to such realms. In these worlds, one can retrieve information and healing energy, and commune with spirits. The shaman ministers to his or her people through this ability, to effect healing of the mind, body, and spirit.
Witches, too, believe in nonphysical realms. They believe in the physical and a multitude of spiritual dimensions. Witches hone their abilities to pierce the veil and travel to these dimensions, where they speak with goddesses, gods, and spirits. Like the shamans, they are expected to remain grounded in the material world with responsibilities to their people, yet keep one foot ever ready to enter the spiritual world. They are bridges between the worlds, seeking to bring their people into greater partnership with the divine. The native people in Siberia and the Americas remained more tribal and retained a certain amount of reverence for these shamans, even in the modern era. As the European people became less tribal, they stamped out their very own shamanic traditions, the practices of the witch. That fear of spiritual power, of the unknown, of mysteries in a culture with a growing patriarchy, turned the image of the witch from a priestess and healer into a monster of the night.
To me, the words witch and witchcraft are wonderfully all-encompassing terms. They evoke a sense of humanity?s mystical past and a hope for the future. Whenever someone, as an individual or as a culture, sought to understand spirit through the cycles of life, honored the divine as being both masculine and feminine, recognized the Earth and sky, quieted themselves enough to hear the soft inner whisper, and took an active partnership with nature, they were practicing witchcraft. Not everyone would agree with that; many tribal traditions would not ever call themselves witches, but it is my personal feeling that such traditions are all practicing the same craft, regardless of the name, place, or time. It is only through an unfortunate period of history that the words witch and witchcraft became maligned. Without this slander, I think the word witch would be translated into more languages as ?healer,? ?teacher,? ?shaman,? and ?wise one,? rather than ?curse bringer.? Witches weave all these threads together in the modern traditions.
I had lunch with a student and friend who told me she was ?finally okay with the W word.? She was drawn to take my classes, cast spells and circles, and basically perform all the rites of a witch, but always had difficulty with that word. She is a great healer, using conventional massage therapy with both reiki and shamanism. She had been giving psychic readings before she had any formal training in the area. She didn?t claim the word witch as her own, and that was fine with me. It?s not for everybody. But she seemed so bothered by the fact, and she didn?t know why. We speculated about past-life persecution for being a witch, but she didn?t explore it further. She came to the conclusion that she didn?t want to be limited by the word witch. There are so many things to do and explore that she did not want to settle for being ?just a witch? when she could try everything. I could understand her sentiment, but I never thought of myself as ?just a witch.?
Almost a year later, we had lunch and she told me she was coming to terms with the word witch and, in my opinion, the true meaning of the word. Even if we learn all these definitions, sometimes our own preconceived notions and prejudices and those of society do not allow the real meaning to absorb into our psyche. In some ways she saw the role of witch as something that could pigeonhole her into an expected role and tradition, without any freedom or change to it. There is a stereotype even in the pagan world that a witch has to wear black all the time, love dark gothic music, and take things very seriously. Hopefully that stereotype is dissolving away, with all the others. To me, witchcraft has given me a frame of reference to experience the world by being open to all possibilities. It has also taught me to look at things practically, to remain grounded in timeless philosophy while still open to modern interpretations. The eclectic witch borrows from many cultures. These cultures do not necessarily have to be Celtic or even European to be a part of the modern craft, even though some traditionalists feel that witchcraft is exclusively Celtic. We come from a tradition filled with the mysteries of the past, but now witchcraft generally encourages one to find the path that works for the individual. All our other ?hats??healer, therapist, herbalist, shaman, mother, brother, priest, priestess, environmentalist, counselor, researcher, writer, psychic, and teacher?all fit nicely under the ?hat? of witch, for witches are all these things, too. Nothing is prevented or forbidden. The path of the witch is truly the path of knowledge and, more importantly, wisdom. It changes and adapts as new information is discovered. Witchcraft is a living religion.
As you can see, the witch has many faces and wears many hats, both woman and man, old and young. The witch is a symbol of darkness and fear to many still, but is really a patron of wisdom and magick. Each practitioner in turn has a personal meaning. If this is all brand new to you and you feel the call of the art, science, and spirituality of the Goddess and God, you will be called on to answer these questions: What is witchcraft? What is a witch? And most importantly, what does it mean to become a witch? If you want to explore the foundations of the inner temple, you are already walking the path of the witch, so ask yourself how you would define the word witch.