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What is Witchcraft & What Are Witches?

Logic states that a witch is a practitioner of witchcraft, but to apply a definitive label to witchcraft actually is is far harder than many would expect.

While there are many definitions, it is widely agreed that witchcraft is an umbrella term that is applied to certain practices that are meant to change the world through the manipulation of energy.

This definition is intentionally vague as a plethora practices fall beneath this label but the importance lies in its application rather than its meaning.

"Witchcraft is the practice of magical skills, spells, and abilities. Witchcraft is a broad term that varies culturally and societally, and thus can be difficult to define with precision." (1)

This definition from Wikipedia is just as vague as "magical skills, spells, and abilities" is entirely subjective.

An example: A witch lights a candle for healing. She invokes her deity and focuses her intention on healing. This is a witch practicing witchcraft.

A woman lights a candle for healing. She invokes her deity and prayers for healing. This is a woman practicing her religion, but she would not call it witchcraft.

When understanding the use of the word witchcraft, it is paramount that the history of the world itself is acknowledged. I dug into the specific mentions of witchcraft in the Torah here, but the history goes further than this. We see Jews and witches hunted interchangeably during the witch craze (which you can read about here) and the persecution of witches expands far past that as well, memorably with the Salem Witch trials, but even so, this is a very western view. Witchcraft, while not widely accepted in the western world, is far less likely to carry a death sentence. This cannot be said for the rest of the globe. In parts of the world, people accused of witchcraft are treated horrifically, with many still losing their lives to the accusations.

We, as newer generations of witches, are granted a privilege that others were, and are, not. We can choose to bear the mantle of witch while our ancestors ran from the title for fear of persecution and, ultimately, death.

So, what does witchcraft look like?

Modern witchcraft is largely conflated with Wicca, a new age religion started in the 1950s by British practitioner, Gerald Gardner. All Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccans. Part of the confusion stems from Wiccan views and beliefs themselves. In a book titled, "Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft", only Wiccan beliefs are discussed. The secondary title of a popular edition is, "The Classic Course in Wicca for 25 Years", but this book is touted all the ultimate book on all witchcraft and leaves new practitioners with the idea that witchcraft is a religion and Wicca is the way.

"Witchcraft is first and foremost a religion. Worship of the Lord and the Lady is therefore the prime concern of the Witch. Magic is secondary to the Witch.....In itself, magick is a practice. If all you want to do is work magick, then you do not need to become a Witch to do it. Anyone can do magick...or, at least, attempt to do it. Such a person is a Magician." (1).

Buckland was trained by Wicca's founder, Gardner, and was a High Priest. His works are considered part of the official Wiccan doctrine. Wicca's teaching, that a Witch must be a Wiccan, and anyone else is not a witch is harmful and woefully misinformed. As it is such a young religion, not yet even a century old, its assertion that all witches must be Wiccan is concerning.

Wicca's conflation of witchcraft and Wicca is far-reaching, turning their religious beliefs and practices into "witch" practices, for example, the Sabbats, a term applied to Celtic holidays by Gardner, Book of Shadows, a term popularized by Gardner after he read it in an article of the same title by Azerbaijani palmist Mir Bashir on Sanskrit divination methods (2), and so many more.

Most young practitioners first encounter witchcraft through a Wiccan lens and should they choose to walk another path, must unlearn the Wiccan perspective through which they approach their craft. This synchronization has led to a whitewashed, sanitized appearance of witchcraft its practices. The workings of a witch are seen through an entirely European lens that excludes a huge portion of practitioners.

There are witches from around the world, though they may choose other labels. For example, Spanish Bruja or Brujo, etc. Even so, we return back to the understanding that witchcraft must be a self-applied term.

The label of witch must be self-applied.

As discussed earlier, it is not the action that makes witchcraft, but the label. For centuries, this label was a death sentence, so many simply chose to ignore the label. Instead, these practitioners used labels like: sage, mystic, wise (person), healer, practitioner, teacher, scholar, philosopher, medicine (person), or simply had no label at all.

One famous example of misapplication is the term of Vodou. For many voodooists and practitioners, being labeled as a witch would be incredibly offensive. While a small portion may accept and even use the title themselves, for practitioners at large, it is not accurate. The same goes for Jewish practitioners who may go by Kabbalist, sage, mystic, or simply, "Jew".

The lack of clear boundaries of what witchcraft is makes witch a term that must be self-applied.

So, what is a Jewish witch?

While witches are discussed within the Torah, extensively, we don't actually have a definition for what a witch was, or is. Some theorize that it was any person who utilized magic, but this argument generally falls short when the question "what is magic" is applied. In the context of modern witchcraft, any Jew who practices Kabbalah could be considered a witch, just as any person who calls upon angels could be considered a witch.

In the end, witchcraft is an umbrella term for many practices that rely on the label of "witchcraft" to be considered witchcraft.

  1. Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft, page 221.