“I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little dog, too!” was my first introduction to a witch. The Wicked Witch of the West to be specific, and the movie was The Wizard of Oz. When people think of witches, a few things may come to mind: the green-faced, long-nosed, black hat-wearing witch from the Wizard of Oz, or possibly some New Ager who burns incense and boils mandrake root, and, thanks to the success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, pre-teen kids studying sorcery and hiding their magic from Muggles.
In Isaac Bonewits’s essay, “A Very Brief History of Witchcraft 1.0,” he explores the foundation of the word “witch”: “The development of primary interest for the origin of ‘witch’ was that of the Anglo-Saxon wic-, meaning ‘to turn, twist or bend.’ This root also later grew into ‘weak,’ ‘wicker’ and ‘wicked,’ all based on the idea of something bendable or twisted. In Old English wicca/wicce, this concept was extended in a specifically magical direction.”
My own research into Witchcraft has shown me that defining a witch is nearly impossible. There are almost as many definitions of a witch as there are witches themselves. To help clarify exactly which witch is which, I contacted Gerina Dunwich, the author of more than twenty books on Wicca and Witchcraft, and a practicing Witch currently residing in Southern California.
The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft defines Witchcraft as “the magical manipulation of supernormal forces through the casting of spells and the conjuring or invoking of spirits.” According to Dunwich, “It is an art that pre-dates Christianity and has been practiced in various forms throughout the world by different cultures and religions.”
This is an extremely broad definition that could include an incredibly large number of people who practice Witchcraft and may not even know it. Dunwich said, “Catholics and other Christians are working magick on a daily basis, whether or not they are aware of it, or choose to call it by another name. For example, prayers that request something, whether it be guidance, healing, or vengeance for an injustice, are a form of spellcasting. The wearing of a cross — originally a Pagan symbol used in magick — for protection against evil equates to amuletic magick. In the Middle Ages it was very common for Christians to work spells and charms in the name of Jesus Christ, Mother Mary, or God. Numerous magickal workings and divinations have long been associated with the Bible and holy water, and psalms and masses continue to be used as verbal charms for protection, fertility, exorcism, healing, etc.”
There is another definition of “witch” that is just as broad in scope but rather opposite of the Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft’s definition. It comes from the Roman Catholic Church’s Canon Episcopi and is dated from roughly 906 C.E.: “It is also not to be admitted that certain abandoned women perverted by Satan, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that, in the dead of night, they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, with a countless horde of women, and in the silence of the dead of night fly over vast tracts of country, and obey her commands as their mistress, while they are summoned to her service on other nights.”
The Church’s definition over the next few centuries would grow to include more or less anyone who didn’t believe in one Christian god — Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. could all be found guilty of Witchcraft. Certainly the darkest times for witches came to a climax during Pope Gregory IX’s papal inquisition beginning in 1231. An estimated 50,000 to 250,000 men, women, and children were accused of being witches. These people were tortured until they confessed, then they were finally executed to end their suffering.
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” became the theme of the day. We need to remember that killing witches was not only seen as a holy crusade, but it was also financially lucrative as well. The crusaders were killing “heretics” and then taking all of the victims’ possessions, their land, and their livestock.
If we accept the Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft’s definition, Witchcraft has been practiced for thousands of years by all religions. Even during the early centuries of Christianity, it was acceptable to be a healer, shaman, psychic, or potion mixer. Only during a corruptive rise to power did the Church outlaw behaviors it saw as heretic or competing.
Witch persecution would continue for centuries after the inquisition, driving the practice deeper and deeper underground. The relentless torture eased up after people realized the practice of Witchcraft could cost them their lives, and they either kept their Witchcraft activities very secretive, or they stopped practicing altogether.
Society also evolved in the second millennia C.E., and many fled to the United States to escape religious persecution in Europe. America offered the promise of religious freedom and a melting pot of peoples. But this dream would have its setbacks. Most of us have heard about the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of 1692, where more than twenty people, and even a dog, were executed for being witches.
Witchcraft got a bit of a renaissance in the twentieth century. In 1939, an English author named Gerald B. Gardner created a new religion based on a secret society he belonged to. He was sworn to secrecy, but he did take some of the ideas and practices of his society public to form “Wicca.” Gerina Dunwich explains that Wicca is different from Witchcraft in that “Wicca is a blend of old Pagan elements, mythology, occultism, ceremonial magick, New Age, Hinduism, and Freemasonry.”
To add to the confusion of what exactly a witch is, some Wiccans also refer to themselves as witches. This is true if we take the broad definition. I asked Ms. Dunwich what it means to be a witch. “To be a Witch is to live one’s life in tune with the earth and the cycles of nature. It is reclaiming the old ways, viewing the world and everything in it as magickal, and working with the mystical energies of plants and stones and animals to create positive changes within and without. To some people, Witchcraft is a religion. But for me, it is simply a way of life and just one small facet of who I am.”
Certainly our culture is becoming more accepting of different practices and religions, and that has aided greatly to the growth of religions such as Wicca. Dunwich explained, “Wicca is said to be the fastest growing religion in the world today; however, different individuals are drawn to it for different reasons. I believe many embrace it because they find it to be a non-restrictive religion that celebrates diversity and encourages an individual path within the faith. It also promotes personal responsibility, free thought, creativity, and sensual pleasures. Many individuals who also feel a strong need to spiritually connect with the energies of the earth find that Wicca fills their spiritual needs. Some people are attracted to its magickal elements, although most Wiccans place more emphasis on deity worship and spiritual development than the casting of spells. And many women who feel left out of the mainstream religions turn to the Wiccan path because they find the concept and worship of the Feminine Divine to be both appealing and empowering.”
Witches and Wiccans are growing in numbers, rediscovering ancient ways of interacting with our planet and all of its inhabitants, and taking a very physical/tangible approach to spirituality. Though we can’t put a very clear label on just who is and who is not a witch, I think that just adds to the charm.