Definitions: Witchcraft

As to not get your panties in a twist
In previous decades, the terms Wicca and witchcraft were used interchangeably. That, however, is no longer the case, although some still consider Wicca to be a subset of witchcraft. This I do not follow, for a couple reasons. The first is that it is troublesome to discuss witchcraft as a religion. That is very much a 20th century definition of the word, one without historical precedent that emerged out of the Burning Times myth. Second, there are a great many witches that consider it a solely magical practice and who may or may not have any religious beliefs at all. For the sake of clarity, I shall here speak of witchcraft in a wholly magical sense, with the acknowledgment that many, many witches attach some sort of religious aspect to their magical beliefs. While there are a great many Wiccan witches, there are also, for example, Christian witches – those who believe in a single omnipotent God and salvation through Christ but who still draw energy from the earth (which they may believe is an extension of God) and do not believe that energy is evil. There are also Jewish witches, atheist witches and, yes, Satanic witches.

This definition of witchcraft as magical practice is quite at odds with the historical concept of witchcraft, which specifically referred to a worker of harmful magic.

A subset of witches is the hereditary witch. Theoretically, this practitioner of magic has had his knowledge passed down to him through many generations of his family. Certainly, in times past, there were families that taught their magical beliefs to their children, and I see no reason why that shouldn’t have continued into the present day. To call this “hereditary,” however, seems out of place. After all, if my mother taught me to be an accountant, I would not be a hereditary accountant, regardless of the number of accountants in my family.

Second, if your ancestors were working magic, they were assuredly not labeling themselves witches. In England, they were called cunning-folk, and they actually testified against witches in the witch-trials. Witches are bad. No one called themself a witch unless she was trying to scare the neighbors.

Furthermore, there are a lot of people who have made outright false claims about being a hereditary witch. A great many people used to think that having been taught by one’s grandmother automatically gave them more legitimacy and outright invented witchy grandmothers.

There is also the traditional witch. This is not to be confused with Traditional Wicca or British Traditional, both of which refer to a number of Wiccan traditions such has the Gardnerians and the Alexandrians (and which are sometimes also referred to as Traditional witchcraft, particularly in England). The traditional witch does not claim to have had the knowledge passed down through this family. Instead, it is something to be learned over years. It is generally initiatory – you learn it from a teacher instead of a book. They reject many of the ceremonial magic elements of Wicca. However, they do frequently claim to be practicing something passed down for hundreds or thousands of years. Some of them get very uppity when a Wiccan calls himself a witch, which merely illustrates the complex web of differing definitions currently in use by various factions of the Pagan community.

Reclaiming the term witch
The problem with the very term witch is it perpetuates the “more persecuted than thou” syndrome. This word originally had very negative connotations (worker of malevolent magic), yet witches get offended when other people do not agree with their new, more positive definition of the word. The counter-argument is that “witch” was not always a derogatory term, but I’ve yet to see any actual evidence of that claim.

M. Macha Nightmare, a member of Starhawk’s Reclaiming Tradition, says:

by calling ourselves Witches, we honor our oppressed foremothers who survived centuries of inequities…we in Reclaiming call ourselves Witches for the very reason that others do not. It’s an in-your-face word. We, as feminists and people who honor our own divinity as well as our interdependence with the rest of Gaia, the Mother, reclaim the term Witch.

I don’t know that being “in-your-face” is the best approach. It tends to be confused with “look-at-me-I’m-being-different”. Regardless, these statements are largely based on erroneous history. Witch has never meant wise woman. It was not corrupted by the Church in an attempt to subjugate women. It has historically always had negative meaning.


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