What is a Witch? What is Witchcraft?
Witch comes from the Anglo-Saxon wicce (meaning witch), which in turn derives
from an Indo-European root word meaning to bend or change or do magic/religion
(making it related to wicker, wiggle, and even vicar). It is possibly also
related to the Old Norse vitki (meaning wizard), derived from root words
meaning wise one or seer. Warlock (rarely used, for male Witches) is from the
Old Norse var6lokkur, spirit song (not oath-breaker). Related words are Pagan,
meaning a country dweller, and Heathen, a dweller on the heath, both of which
peoples were the European equivalent of the Native Americans and other
indigenous, nature-worshipping people. Today, a Witch is a woman or man who
practices a life-affirming, Earth- and nature-oriented religion, honoring
Divinity in female as well as (or instead of) male aspects, and practicing
Magic (which some Witches spell magick, to distinguish it from stage
illusions). There are many different traditions of Witches, encompassing many
beliefs in addition to these. Some traditions are practiced by women only,
and recognize only the Divine Feminine, the Goddess. Others include men and
recognize a male god in addition to the Goddess. Some traditions may date
back to before the Spanish Inquisition, others have been in existence for
only a few years. The strength of the Witches religion (also called the Craft
or Wicca) lies in its diversity; it is a living, growing religious tradition.
Witchcraft today may be seen as the sum total of all a Witchs practices,
including but not limited to: spellcasting, divination (fortune telling),
meditation, herbalism, ritual and ritual drama, singing and dancing to
raise energy, healing, clairvoyance and other psychism, creative mythology,
As a religion, the Craft is a revival and/or reconstruction of the pre-
Christian religions of Europe, especially Northern Europe (giving us Celtic
or Norse traditions), sometimes elsewhere (giving us Greco-Roman, Egyptian,
or Levantine traditions). Many of us have turned for inspiration to the
still-living indigenous traditions of other lands, such as Australia, Asia,
India, and the Americas. Some of us , recognizing that we are American
Witches, work with deities and land-spirits of local Amerindian tribes,
though we do not claim to be members of any Amerindian tradition. As Margot
Adler, a Witchcraft authority, has written, The real tradition of the Craft
Do you pray? Who do you pray to?
Some Witches pray (in the popular sense of the word), some dont . Some
Witches regularly meditate on the deities of their choice; some only
invoke deities to empower a ritual or work of Magic.
As to who or what our deities are, you will get nearly as many answers as
there are Witches. Consensus opinion seems to be that there is a
transcendent Divine, the sum of all that is and more, and that everything
that is partakes of that Divinity. However, that Divinity is more than the
human mind can encompass or experience. So the idea of Divinity is broken
down into few or many mind-sized pieces. One cannot look at the sun but
through a filter; one can only experience a piece of the Divine. These
pieces are conceived of in many forms. One of the primary forms Divinity
takes for us is the Goddess, the Divine Feminine. She can have many names
and many aspects; some Witches worship only the nameless single Goddess, and
others worship Her under all the names by which she has been known to the
ancients: Ishtar, Diana, Ceridwen, Athena, Amaterasu, Brigantia, Venus,
Hecate, Isis, Demeter, and more. In addition, the Goddess can be seen in
three aspects: the Maiden (youth, self-sufficiency, often love), the
Mother (nurturing, fulfillment), and the Crone/Wise Woman (wisdom, mystery,
initiation, and death/rebirth). The Moon, the Sea, and the Earth can all
be personified as Goddesses.
Some Witches stop there. Other Witches include the Divine Male, the God.
Our God is not limited to the Father aspect, though there are Divine
Fathers. The Sun is often personified as a God, as is plant life; the dying
and reborn Grain God is common to nearly all agricultural myths. Some name
Him merely the Horned One; others call him by the names he had of old:
Apollo, Osiris, Dionysos, Odin Pan Freyr, Adonis, Tammuz, and many others.
When we invoke deities and/or manifest them in ourselves, where do they come
from? Are they somewhere out there and do they come in? Or are they inside
us, in our psyches, and do they come out? Do we put on a deity, or do we
remove our shell of humanity to let the divinity show through? Nobody has
the answer, nor do we pretend to. Deities may be archetypes , they may be
nature spirits, they may be forces outside our ken. Who or whatever they
are, they are. Our deities are both transcendent (out there) and immanent
Are you Satanists?
No. To be a Satanist, one must believe in Satan. Witches do not believe in
Satan, as such. The popular image of the goat-hooved, pointy-horned devil
is a deliberate corruption by the early missionary church of the European
Pagan Horned God, who has been depicted in Greece as Pan, and in ancient
Gaul as Cernunnos (who is pictured having a stag's antlers). Making
indigenous gods into evil beings was the early church's most reliable
method of gaining converts. Some missionary Christian groups continue the
practice to this day, in areas that have retained their old religions.
Our Horned God is neither evil nor a source of evil; He is the energy of
nature, of plant and animal life, which energy manifests for people in
music and dance, intoxication and ecstasy, and all joyous activities,
What about evil? What are your ethics/morals?
We believe that life is essentially good, and creation and destruction are
part of natural cycles. Clearly, though, there is evil in the world. We
believe its source is not any kind of devil or demiurge, but human action
(note: not human nature). Evil is also subjective: what is good for one
may be evil for another and vice versa. For example, a tiger kills an
antelope: the antelope's death is bad to the antelope, but good to the
tiger, who does, after all, have to eat. The deities of the Craft, if they
have any inclination at all, incline towards the positive; most are neither
good nor evil, they just are, in the same way any elemental force, like
fire or the weather, is. Our deities give us power; how we choose to use
that power is up to us.
That use is directed, first and foremost, by the Witches Rede: If it harm
none, do what you will. It is also directed in part by the Law of Threefold
Return: what you give out returns to you threefold. If you work ill,
threefold ill comes back to you. If you work good, threefold good comes
back to you.
Witches (and members of other indigenous religions) have known all along
what science is only beginning to acknowledge: that all systems on the
planet are interconnected, all life is one. When imbalance is caused in one
area, the whole system is thrown out of balance. Acts of evil cause
imbalance. The works of Witchcraft are toward balance and harmony. We are
healers, protectors; we will act swiftly and forcefully in defense against
aggression, but we do not ourselves attack.
Do you do animal/human sacrifices?
No. Our own internal life-force is sufficient to whatever task we may
require; we have no need of stealing the life-force of another. As
offerings to our deities, Witches may burn incense or candles, pour out
libations, place sacred herbs or food in some outdoor spot, bury talismans
or money. Some female Witches use their own menstrual blood in spells;
other Witches may prick themselves (in these enlightened days, usually
with sterile lancets) and offer a drop or two of their own blood. But the
only blood a Witch has a right to offer is her/his own. The sacrifice of
another's is against the Rede.
Do you have gurus, leaders, priests, masters?
Every Witch is her or his own priest/ess. That's part of the point of the
Craft. We need no intermediaries between us and Divinity; each of us can
have our own personal revelation. Mostly, the Craft is too diverse and
anarchic to follow any one leader. We all partake of Divinity, and no one
person has exclusive knowledge of the Divine or sole power to decide the
directions of our lives. We have no infallible leader, no Grand High
Exalted Poobah, no dogma. Nobody can have all the answers. So many of us
have our own ideas about what the Craft should be and how it works, that we
can rarely agree on points of religion Q the idea of all of us agreeing
to follow one person is manifestly absurd.
Each Circle or Coven may have a High Priestess or High Priest, or it may
be democratic and operate by consensus. There will always be people with
leadership tendencies; these are people who tend to do outreach work,
networking between Wiccan groups or outside the Craft, or even teaching.
Do you believe in heaven and hell?
As it has been said, Witches don't believe in life after death, we believe
in life after birth. The emphasis of the Craft is on working to make this
life good for as many people as possible, oneself included.
We do not believe in a hell, sin, or redemption. As mentioned above, evil
is imbalance. But we have no concept of original sin for which we must be
redeemed Q indeed, that concept has been the source of oppression and even
killing of women for centuries, since medieval Christian philosophy had it
that woman was the source of all sin and evil. Witches are reclaiming Eve
as the one who gave us self-knowledge through her courage and curiosity.
Nor, for that matter, do we believe in a heavenly reward for good behavior.
Spiritual bribery is not the way of the Witch; the results of good or evil
acts are felt in this lifetime. No celestial carrot or infernal stick.
On the other hand, Witches have quite a few opinions about what does happen
after death. Most believe in reincarnation of some sort or other. Some have
it that between death and rebirth the soul undergoes some sort of
transformation (for which there are a number of metaphors) to prepare it
for rebirth. Others believe that the dead join the Blessed Ancestors, who
watch over, protect and advise their descendants. Still others have it
that the souls of those who chose pain or evil when they were alive may
be trapped after death in a state of suffering because that is all they
can understand. Most Witches are honest enough to say, We dont really know,
and there isn't any way to know.
What is your magic? Does it work? How?
There are a number of sayings about Magic. It is the act of changing
consciousness by Will. It is the science of coincidence. As the root word
of Witch indicates, we are shapers and changers; what we shape and change
is our own life force, our own consciousness, our health and that of the
planet. We believe that we can change our lives be spiritual as well as
physical means. Very little is preordained, except that we will die, some
day. In the meantime, many Witches do divination to find out the possible
directions their lives might take, and then act on the information
accordingly. It works. We can't turn people into frogs or levitate tables
by mind-power; we can work healing, change our lives for the better, and
discover the workings and balance of the whole system. Our Wills are our
tools. Faith without works is meaningless, and we work in the world, too; we
are active in our communities and for the environment, but we back up our
actions with magical intent. It is a potent combination.
Do you do Black Magic?
No. Some of us do not even recognize black or white Magic; Magic is Magic,
and what its nature is depends on how we use it. Remember that we try to
temper all our Magic by the Rede.
Do you cast spells?
Yes. That's part of being a Witch. There are those who wish merely to
worship the Goddess (and God), observe the turning of the seasons with
ritual, and honor the Earth. These are what may be called Neo-Pagans (to
distinguish them from indigenous, aboriginal pagans). Nearly all Witches
are Neo-Pagans (believe it or not, a few Witches are Christian or Jewish);
not all Neo-Pagans are Witches.
For us, spells and rituals are a matter of arranging elements to encourage
a frame of mind conducive to working Magic. This may involve burning
candles and/or incense, making talismans of stone or wood or paper,
chanting rhymed formula, using herbs or essential oils, turning down
the lights and playing some atmospheric music, or whatever the imagination
of the Witch can devise.
The Threefold Return works powerfully here: if someone wishes to curse
someone else, the curser must first build up the curse within her/himself
Q guess who gets to feel it first! Acts of healing, on the other hand,
are acts of profound love, and the healer often finds her/himself
healthier after healing someone else. It is always easier to cast a spell
on oneself than on another. Only in very limited circumstances, if at all,
should a spell be cast on another without that persons knowledge and consent.
How do you worship? What are your holidays? What do you do then?
There are as many ways of worship as there are traditions of the Craft.
Most rituals involve consecration of the ritual space in some way,
invocation of a Deity or Deities, and a communal meal. Rituals can include
music and/or dancing, poetry, masquing and drama (often in enactments of
myth), and even props and special effects. Again, creativity is the
watchword here. There are eight holidays.
1 Nov., Samhain: Popularly known as Halloween.
The Feast of the Ancestors and Witches New Year. Trick-or-
Treating evolved from Pagan Souling, when children
representing ancestors collected food and blessed the
houses they visited.
22 Dec., Yule/Midwinter: The Winter Solstice.
Shortest night of the year, Feast of the Rebirth of the
Sun, after which the days begin to grow longer again.
Many Christmas customs have a Pagan origin: the Yule
Log, Christmas Tree, Evergreen Decorations, Wassailing.
1Feb., Imbolc/Brigid: Feast of Returning Light. Also called Candlemas.
In honor of the Irish Brigid, Goddess of holy wells,
fire, healing, smithcraft, and poetry. Brigid's Fire
warms the Earth after Winter.
22 Mar., Eostre: Named after the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of the Dawn; origin
of the word Easter. The Vernal Equinox, Feast of
Planting and Rebirth.
1 May, Beltaine: Also called May Day.
The first day of Summer, the beginning of the light half
of the year. A feast of fertility and burgeoning life.
22 June, Litha/Midsummer: The Summer Solstice
The longest day of the year. Feast of the Sun on High or
the Solar Hero; activities are mostly those to do with
1Aug., Lughnasadh/Lammas: Feast of Lugh, or Loaf-mass.
Feast of the Hero-God Lugh, who undergoes a shamanic
death-rebirth initiation, and/or the Barley God, who
dies and is transformed into beer. Festival of the First
Fruits, the first harvest.
22 Sept., Harvest Home: Celebration of the Harvest.
Has its analog in the American Thanksgiving, which was
indeed originally a harvest festival.
How many of you are there? Do you raise your children in this?
Conservative reckonings estimate 200,000 Witches and/or Neo-Pagans in the US
alone. There could be many more, who are simply more private about their
religion, for the very real fear of persecution. Witches are still working
hard for our First Amendment rights.
Most Wiccan parents allow their children to become involved in the Craft or
learn about Paganism if the child wishes; few, if any, require of their
children adherence to any particular path. There are indeed Pagan/Wiccan
children and young adults. They're just like other kids. They go through
adolescent rebellion and life crises just like other kids; they may even be
slightly more well-adjusted than non-Pagan kids, if only because the Craft
provides rituals and/or recognitions of Life Passages.
How do you become a Witch?
The Craft does not actively seek converts. we do not proselytize. We are
willing to inform when asked, and training is available in varying degrees
of formality. Some Witches believe that one must be born with the talent
to become a Witch. Others believe that all people have the ability, and
that becoming a Witch is simply a matter of training. Some people know from
an early age that they are Witches; others come to the Craft as adults.
Most of us grew up in a tradition other than the Craft. And there are many
out there who do what we would call Witchcraft who have no idea what to
call it, or even that there are others like them in the country or the
world. Being a Witch, like doing Magic itself, is Ra matter of symbolism
Where can I find out more?
There are a number of good books available on the Craft. Here are a few
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon.
Farrar, Janet and Stewart. What Witches Do.
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance.
Matthews, Caitlan and John. The Western Way, Vol. I: The Native Tradition.
Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow.
Weinstein, Marion. Positive Magic.
The Covenant of the Goddess, a non-profit religious organization
incorporated in California in 1975, can also advise you on contacts and
reading material, and provide speakers and information. The Covenant's
Newsletter, published eight times a year, is available for a donation of
$15.00 to Covenant of the Goddess; sample issues are $2-3. CoG has members
all over the United States, in Canada, Britain, and Australia.
Covenant of the Goddess
PO Box 1226
Berkeley, CA 94701
PO Box 4538
Sunnyside, NY 11104-4538
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