What is Witchcraft?

The collective gasp from the room across the tiny hallway was actually audible.

The occasion? My father’s funeral. What had I done to cause such an instantaneous and synchronous reaction of shock from my family? I had told the minister I was a goddess worshipping pagan when he inquired as to the silver triple moon pentacle I wear. The look of shock on my eldest brother’s face when he asked if my father had shared my religious beliefs or if I found the service we had been discussing offensive was absolutely priceless. As was the tone of unbelieving scorn in my brother-in-law’s voice when he whispered to my sister, "She’s a witch?" Now I didn’t set out to shock my family, or anyone else for that matter. Like most people I generally don’t hide my spiritual choices but nor am I given to getting into people’s faces about it. The ironic part of this scene? In my rather large family we have 1 Buddhist, 1 Taoist, 2 Bahais (including the aforementioned sister) and an Islam (the aforementioned brother). Given this why should my family find my spirituality shocking? Well because in large part the word witch carries so many negative connotations. Throughout history there have been so many myths and misunderstandings about witchcraft that we carry them with us even today. But wait. Aren’t witches today odd outcast teenagers running around in black gothic uniforms worshipping Satan in an attempt to shock their parents? Well yes there are some of those. Aren’t witches historically women meeting in the woods in the dark of night to dance around a cauldron and chant strange incantations in obscure languages like Sanskrit, Latin or Gaelic? Well yes sometimes we do that, but it’s certainly not the sum total of our religion, nor is it particularly evil. What we are not is evil old hag like monsters as described by the ‘Monsters’ unit of study my son did at school, nor are we servants of Satan. OK. So what and who are witches today?

The answer to that question is complicated to say the least. Margo Adler said in her book Drawing Down the Moon, "Ask 12 pagans what a pagan is and you’ll get 13 answers." That’s a pretty fair description. The reason for that is the same reason that pagan religions are among the fastest growing religious groups in a day and age when traditional religious doctrines are loosing membership. The things that all pagan beliefs call for are personal responsibility and respect for all paths toward enlightenment but that also means that the beliefs are individualised by the practitioner. Most pagans feel that that makes their religion more meaningful to them, because their beliefs and practises are based on what they feel, not on set of written rules that can apply to anyone. However, I will attempt to sketch some of the more common trends.

Witches today fall into a lot of different groups, Goddess worshippers, poly theistic, dual theistic, the lists are endless. However, worship today is for the most part based on ancient tribal beliefs. Hunter/gatherer tribes depended completely on nature to provide for their needs and they lived in accordance with nature. Thus they saw nature as inherently sacred. The Goddess, and her consort the God, or nature, was seen as dual, feminine and masculine because it is from the that combination of masculine and feminine that all life springs. On a more practical level women were protected and worshipped in large part because a woman could bear only one child a year at most whereas a man could impregnate many women within that time. Seeing the feminine as sacred was imperative to the survival of the species. Some tribal members would seem to be more attuned to nature. They seemed to have a talent for calling the animals they hunted to them or a talent for knowing which plants would calm a fever or heal a wound. These people became revered, respected shamans and the tribe would seek guidance from them.

But how does this apply to our lives in a modern age? Increasingly as a society we’ve been becoming more and more aware that the rise of the mechanistic age and later the industrial revolution has led us further and further away from our connections with nature. We came to view nature, the earth, as a resource to be used rather than the source of all life, to be respected and revered. We are now starting to see that that attitude has led to the slow bleeding and destruction of our planet and perhaps our own future as a species. We are starting to recognise that all life originated from the same source. In an act of self preservation more and more people are returning to nature based spirituality.

But what does this have to do with magic? Dion Fortune described magic, or witchcraft, "As the art of changing consciousness at will." But what does that mean? Current scientific theory of quantum mechanics suggests that all matter at its basest root is energy. Science can also explain the chemical reactions that create life, but it still cannot define what life IS. We can see that certain hormones are released by the body under certain circumstances that can elicit different moods and feelings, or the chemical process of pheromones that result in our attraction to other people. What science cannot explain is what is love? What is spirit? What is the soul? Yet all of these things manifest as energy. Picture yourself one morning having a particularly trying time at the office, your lunch break comes and you’re feeling cranky, tired and out of sorts so you decide to take a walk. Outside it’s a bright May morning, sunny, warm, with a lightly fragrant breeze. Within a few moments you find your bad mood lifting, the irritations of the morning seem small and insignificant, before long you’re whistling a snippet of a gay tune. Your energy has changed. But what changed it? Well without going into long theories of the effects of solar energy on the chemical balance of our brains, that’s only a partial explanation. If that was the whole story why don’t we react the same way to a sun lamp? Yes a sun lamp may stave off the effects of S.A.D. but it rarely will have us whistling a happy tune and giving a bright smile to strangers on the street. What has happened is magic. The current consciousness has changed at your will. You have tapped into a source of energy and used it to improve your spirits at a time when they were low.

What is this energy source? The druids call it "Life Force Energy"; the fey call it "The Green", George Lucas called it "The Force". It doesn’t really matter what name we give it. I believe that there is more to life than simply a set of chemical processes, that there is that ‘spark’ called spirit to complete the process. If all matter is simply energy then in a slightly over simplified way everything we know is nothing more then part of a vast pool of energy. Magic is tapping that pool. Whether we drop pebbles into it, sending ripples out across its surface, or we dip a cup into it to refill and sustain ourselves. Subsequently because we are a part of that pool, because energy can neither be created nor destroyed, even though we dip into that pool, we are also sustaining it, thus the cycle that ensures that the well never runs dry.

What does this have to do with Goddess religion? Goddess is one of the names we give to the forces of creation. Why feminine? As our ancient ancestors understood, generally speaking, all life is born of the female (my apologises to the sea horses). In nature all life is born, it is not created. Thus it seems to follow naturally that the very existence of the universe was not a process of ‘creation’ but rather birth. It’s often seemed to me that "The Big Bang" is a pretty good term for the birth process. Because we see this pool of energy as Goddess and God, and because we see ourselves (and everything else) as a part of that pool, we see the Goddess/God as not only manifest in ourselves but in each thing on earth. Because each action we take or decision we make is a manipulation of our energy, and that energy is connected to everything else we carry a deep personal responsibility in how our actions affect the whole. Ripples on the pond. Magic isn’t just the action of dancing around a bonfire at midnight, it exists in each and every thing we do or say.

What about this dancing around a bonfire at midnight? Rituals are an important part of witchcraft, as they are of any religion, and they serve the same purpose. They bring together a group of people with common purpose to work together to a common end. They help us attain a certain state of mind that makes it easier to focus on that end. In that sense the Catholic High Mass, the Christian Revival Meeting, serve the same purpose. Prayer in the Christian sense, is in the Witchcraft sense, the focusing of one’s energy to change the outcome of a given situation. That the Catholic sees the divine as "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" and calls upon it that way and witchcraft sees the divine as a pool of energy made up of the five sacred elements, earth, air, fire, water and spirit and calls upon it as The Goddess makes little difference in the end. The actual process of manipulation and the end result is not so different. Call it a miracle or call it magic, it’s all the same thing.

So witches are all tree huggers? Well I would hope that most are, I know I’m proud to be called a tree hugger. However, they are also doctors, lawyers, insurance adjusters, computer technicians, web masters, conservationists, anthropologists, factory workers, pilots, shop owners, dog breeders, farmers, housewives, areo-space engineers, physicists, accountants&ldots; they are people. Some are solitary practitioners, preferring to stay in the ‘broom closet’ due to the persecution that can still be faced. Others join small closed highly secretive covens. Some attend large open public rituals run by large organisations. Some are druidic, some are traditional wiccans; gardnarians, alexandrines, odessian, or astir, some are kitchen witches, some are shamans, some are occultists, some are just plain pagans no qualifier added.

If witches are so normal why do we have this stereotype about them? There are a lot of theories about that. However, it mostly stems from the advent of Christianity in Europe. Christianity was essentially a patriarchal religion when it came to areas that were essentially matrifocal pagan in their beliefs. The strong differences between the two meant that the priests found few converts. The pagan cultures couldn’t understand the idea of sin, for all acts were Her acts, especially in regards to sex, which as it was essential to the survival of the people was especially sacred. The idea of evil was foreign to them. There was only the understanding of the cycles of life, birth, death, construction, destruction, light, dark, summer, winter, male, female. Every positive had its negative, one without the other wasn’t whole. The idea of absolution didn’t make sense. Every action had its reaction, every person had to live with the responsibility and consequences of his/her actions. That death was final didn’t fit either, surely just as the body returned to the earth, surely the spirit had to also return and be reborn? The Christian Church’s reaction was strong and the attempts to wipe out the old religion were profound. Women were viewed as the purveyors of original sin, people were taught that their healing arts were evil. The Horned God of the old ways (the masculine element of energy and consort of the Goddess) was transformed into the devil. Pagan high holidays such as Beltaine, Samhaine, or Yule, which bore a similarity their time frames to other Christian holidays were homogenised and merged with them into May Day, All Hallows’ Eve, and Christmas. This persecution culminated in 1484, when the Papal Bull of Innocent VIII unleashed the power of the Inquisition against witches, covens, shamans and healers. With the publication of the Malleus Malefricarum, "The Hammer of the Witches" by the Dominicans Kramer and Sprenger in 1486, the groundwork was laid for a reign of terror that was to hold all of Europe in its grip until well into the seventeenth century. Secrecy among witches became a necessity to survival. What covens survived passed along very little knowledge because of it. When modern witchcraft began to really see its resurgence in the later part of this century it was built on fragments of old knowledge, assumptions based on what little we did know of our ancient ancestors, and frankly a lot of stuff made up based upon what the practitioner felt most comfortable with. Even now many people still prefer to be stay ‘in the broom closet’ for fear of losing their jobs or even their children because of these misconceptions. There are some large groups that work toward educating the public but for the most part witchcraft is a religion of small close knit working groups, of personal beliefs, there is no great book or doctrine, there is no large overseeing infrastructure. The result is that many myths and misconceptions originally perpetrated to facilitate the taking over of one culture by another, still exist.

On a final note, all of this is said of course from my own personal perspective, from my views of my religion and those with whom I share it. It is by no means definitive, in fact I’m sure a large number of witches would disagree with one or more things I’ve said. I’ve made a lot of generalities, and "all generalities are inherently false, including this one." However, I believe that most would also find one or more points that they would agree with. In the end, if I have dispelled one myth, if I have convinced one person that the words witch and evil are not synonymous then I have done my job.

May the strength of the Lord protect you. May the light of the Lady guide you. Blessed Be.


The Spiral Dance - Starhawk

Drawing Down the Moon - Margo Adler

The Western Mystery Tradition - Dion Fortune

The Witches Bible Complete - Stewart and Janet Farrar

When God Was a Woman - Merlin Stone

Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood - Merlin Stone