Where Witches Came From

“Have Witches always been evil throughout history?” The innocent and curious may ask. “If so,” the ones who misunderstand say, “why call yourself a Witch since it is synonymous with an evildoer?” Some modern Witches suggest the witch as evildoer is a myth, that the term was never meant to be used to describe someone who performs malevolent magic. “Yet where is that proof?” Some friends have asked me, and no answer I’ve given them has sufficed. One well-meaning friend suggested that, instead of using the term ‘witch’ to describe my spiritual path, I should use a different word that has a better association; “Why not call yourself Wizard, Herbalist, or Magician, or just Wiccan?” Another solution suggested to me and other Witches has been that we should claim that we are solely seeking to re-define the term ‘witch’ as benevolent spiritualist, someone akin to a hippie who practices peace, love, and harmony. Or why not claim that modern-day Witchcraft is a re-creation of an Old Religion, not a true relic of the ancient pagan past, but one inspired by it, one that is really a New Age spiritual movement, not a true religion. Who is to say what is a true religion? What basis are we comparing real religion on? Not all religions are defined by one type of belief in a Divine Being. We have to look beyond our own bias, divorce ourselves for a moment from thinking within the confines of our own culture, and open our minds to new concepts we dared not consider before because it just simply was not pointed out to us in a direct fashion.

The answers to the questions above are not easy to come up with on-the-spot.  Even I, after two decades of practice, have to consult books and cite references.  I should know, by heart, answers to the questions most asked by non-Witches.  I sometimes assume people will just Google them these days, but after checking on the internet myself, and even consulting books I have long turned to, I realized that the answers are not always clearly listed.  It reminded me of the days when I was first taught Witchcraft, how my teachers encouraged me to think for myself, leaving me alone to do research to answer my own questions.  But not everyone is willing to do all that research themselves, they ask and, since I am the Witch, I should be the spokesperson, the only expert they will ever come across whom they can personally interview. Even though I am a Solitary Witch, one who prefers to be alone, I still make it well-known I am a Witch, and this means dealing with the public. In an effort to educate, share, and put to rest concerns and debates, it is my intention to present a list of answers to each question and, where applicable, cite historic, documented sources. Here we go!

Witches weren’t evil, they were just the enemy

* The English word “Witch” evolved from the Saxon word wicca which was a masculine noun pronounced “witch’-ah”, not “wick’-ah” with the feminine form being wicce, properly pronounced “witch’-eh”, wiccan being the male plural noun (not an adjective) and the feminine plural form wiccen (pronounced “witch-en”)– referenced from the Witchvox article A Witch By Any Other Name (The Great Wicca vs. Witchcraft Debate) by author Mike Nichols.

* First evidence of the sin of Witchcraft documented in Latin penitentials (set of rules regarding penance first developed by Celtic priests) by Theodore of Tarsus, stated: “If a woman has performed incantations or diabolical divinations, let her do penance for one year. About which it says in the canon: Those who observe auguries or auspices or dreams or any kind of divinations according to the customs of the heathens, or introduce men of this kind into their homes in investigating a device of the magicians – if these repent, if they are of the clergy let them be cast out, but if they are truly secular people let them do penance for five years.” This provides just one example that Witchcraft was primarily concentrated on the magical practices of women and not yet a sin punishable by death. Source: Meaney, Audrey (1989). “Women, Witchcraft and Magic in Anglo-Saxon England”. Superstition and Popular Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England (ed: D.G. Scragg) (Manchester: Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies): 9–40.

* First documented use of the word ‘wicce-cræeft (witchcraft) and ‘wicce’ (witch) was used to describe the malevolent magical practices of people, specifically women, who were not Christian, appeared in the Law Codes of King Alfred the Great, circa 890 C.E. These people were most likely the last priestesses and/or magicians left of the polytheistic Anglo-Saxon pagans and various ancient British cultures who were still resistant towards monotheistic Anglo-Saxon Christianity. King Alfred was zealous in his mission to convert all subjects under his rule to Christianity. So zealous, that in his Laws, he adapted the “Do not allow sorcerers to live” from the Book of Exodus to “Do not allow the women who are accustomed to receive enchanters, magicians and witches to live.” This Biblical law would not be translated to “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live” until the reign of King James I centuries later.

* After the 9th century, the masculine noun ‘wicca’ was later dropped and the feminine noun ‘wicce’ soon evolved into the English word Witch used to describe any woman who practiced magic, malevolent or not. Based on the information listed here, it is no surprise that Witches were considered evil since they were the enemy of the Anglo-Saxon Christians. Any kind of spiritual and magical practices were suspicious. Women were especially suspect because they were connected to sexuality and the church preached that the world of the flesh was the domain of the Devil. Young, beautiful women were the most dangerous. It wasn’t until after the Black Death that widows, the elderly, ugly, and diseased women were most suspect of Witchcraft.

Witches are synonymous with Power, not evildoing

* According to Éva Pócs, there are three varieties of Witchcraft in popular belief:
The “neighbourhood witch” or “social witch”: a witch who curses a neighbour following some conflict.
The “magical” or “sorcerer” witch: either a professional healer, sorcerer, seer or midwife, or a person who has through magic increased her fortune to the perceived detriment of a neighbouring household; due to neighbourly or community rivalries and the ambiguity between positive and negative magic, such individuals can become labelled as witches.
The “supernatural” or “night” witch: portrayed in court narratives as a demon appearing in visions and dreams.

*  There are four general categories for accusations of witchcraft:
— Getting caught in the act of positive or negative sorcery.

—  A sorcerer or healer lost their clients’ or the authorities’ trust.

—  Someone gained the enmity of their neighbors.

—  The person was reputed to be a witch because their presence is imbued with a sense of “magic” or other-worldliness that cannot be explained.

*  In 1487 the publication of The Malleus Maleficarum, “The Hammer of the Witches” or “Hexenhammer” by the Dominicans Kramer and Sprenger, was used as the primary instruction manual for magistrates on how to detect and exterminate Witches — 80 % percent of whom were women. Why women? Because women, despite being believed to be the weaker sex and treated as second class citizens in the Middle Ages, still had power

“If we inquire, we find that all the kingdoms
of the world have been overthrown by women.”
–quoted directly from the Malleus Malificarum itself!

* From the earliest societies and on through the ages, women tended to the physical and spiritual needs of people in the private spheres of family life. At one time this must have extended to a very vital role in tribal societies. Yet in a culture dominated by a religion where God was male, powerful women were a threat and had to be devalued. Women’s work became the Devil’s work, especially if it was carried out in secret. Even the most innocent of acts could warrant an accusation of Witchcraft; favoring a pet cat, sweeping and cleaning, making a doll, braiding hair, being too beautiful or too ugly, and just simply being “uppity” could get you burnt at the stake.

The Proof is hidden in the lies

The memories from the Burning Times and centuries of bad propaganda have given the term “Witch” a very bad name. Yet it did not end with the persecution of wise women, it was used as a means to enslave and demonize tribal cultures as European imperialism grew.

* Moving beyond the Witch Trials of the Medieval times, during the 17th through 19th centuries, charges of Witchcraft practiced by natives were to justify the enslavement and usurption of African, American Indian, and Latin American cultures. It was believed these people lived in fear of their spirits and Gods, and that Christianity was the only way to save them, or they would be destroyed.

* In order to keep their spiritual ways alive under the rule of their white Christian masters, Afro-American people adapted to the ways of Catholicism and intermixed with them their tribal spiritual practices and beliefs, thus creating new religions. Maligned and very misunderstood, Maccumba, Santería, Lukumi, and Voudoun (along with MANY other Afro-American magico-religious traditions) are all religions hurt by the evil myth of Witchcraft created by European Christians to belittle and bedevil their beliefs. So much so that even today it is a grave insult, and a laughable mistake, to associate their ways with even the harmless neo-pagan version of Witchcraft today.

* The possibility of a conquered people revived and empowered by religions considered the stuff of “witchcraft” by Christians, was a bit of history repeating. Like the Anglo-Saxons who feared their pagan spiritual enemies, and the threatening idea of women powered by supernatural forces conspiring against the church, the mysterious ways of a people guided by unknown spirits was yet another blow to the insecurities of an arrogant and dominant culture fueled by the negative reinforcement of belief in a Devil.

To acknowledge that a supposedly primitive, weaker culture had the power of Witchcraft, was to admit that they had a power that could not be completely controlled by the nation that claimed to conquer it. To claim that the native religions were not true religions because they were considered inferior, primal, or simple compared to the much more organized and civilized Christian traditions, was an arrogant attempt to claim superiority over religions that cannot be “tamed” or easily labeled. If one cannot contain it in a box, it is wild and unpredictable, easily considered dark and dangerous. Whether or not native traditions practiced violent or non-violent rituals in service to their Gods and spirits, fear of the power of “witch doctors” and other tribal spiritual leaders led to Christian missionaries converting innocents. In exchange for leaving their tribes for the promise of a better life as a Christian, sometimes led to life-threatening situations for new converts, completely playing into the Evil Witch Myth needed to scare people into staying in a different religion. It doesn’t matter if it is considered “evil”, power is power, and people, no matter what the religious background, are frightened and awestruck by it.

Therefore I claim that Witchcraft, mythic, historic, perceived diabolical or holy, is synonymous with POWER, both psychological and supernatural, unbound by time, geography, and cultural definitions.

Any other name would not mean the same

* Being a Wizard is not the same as being a Witch. Wizards are a different kind of magician altogether, often considered a higher class venerated as thaumaturgists (miracle workers) who were the world’s first chemists, philosophers, mathematicians, and astrologers. One of the most well-known wizards in history was John Dee, devoted advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.  All wizards were men protected by the aristocracy — they really weren’t all that different from the women, yet women’s magic was considered diabolical, typical misogynistic bias of the day.

* Herbalists are people dedicated to the study of the economic and medicinal uses of plants. They are not magicians or witches by any means, however many Witches today often use herbs for both their medicinal and magical properties. Key components for charms are roots and herbs. Most of today’s Witchcraft is based on the teachings of folk or Hedge Witchcraft, a contemporary tradition inspired by the “low magic” ways of peasants and slaves. Low Magic is the opposite of the “high-class” science-oriented magic of wizards mentioned above, centered on the simple ways of hearth and home — the magic of the common people.

* The term Magician can refer to anyone who practices magic. Yet magicians are a different breed of practitioner than the Witch. The magician uses an outward projection of the human will and mastery over the spirits of nature. The magician’s use of magic is more scientific, formulated, and quite technical in execution. The magical practice of Witchcraft is an art. The Witch uses a more inward approach, letting her own body be a conduit for the spiritual forces of nature and the Gods to work through her. Witches’ magic is more homemade and personable, concentrating more on the poetry of ritual and trance.

*  Wiccan is the same as Witch, Wicca is the same as Witchcraft, even though today it is contested by those who wish to separate themselves from the magical practice and just strictly be spiritual and vice versa.  This movement from the magico-religious to merely religious, I suspect, stems from the need to accepted by society and to be better tolerated by other faiths.  This is a backwards step in interfaith networking.  Even Witches can get their own terminology mixed up with the best of intentions!  I once questioned it myself until I did some research over the last five years and came back to the conclusion that I felt was right all along; call me what you like, believe what you will, but the correct name of my religion is Witchcraft OR Wicca (I prefer Witchcraft because it sounds like home to me, has never freaked me out, and I wish more people would recognize the joy I find in it).

Who is to say that one way is better than the other? Or that our ways don’t ever overlap? We call ourselves by different titles for a reason, to distinguish one from the other, and to sometimes reclaim a power that was stolen or lost.

Religion is the soul of the People

Religion should not just be defined as the way people relate to the Divine, nor should it be limited to just the set of rules established to hold in check the behavior and thoughts of a culture. Religion involves community and public duty, reverence and respect for our fellow human beings in the name of our Gods, and the daily communion with our Gods as a means of practicing harmony between the worlds of spirit and earth. Not all religions require a belief in the Divine, but all include a tradition of seeking enlightenment and maintaining inter-connection with the source of all life.

Witchcraft is another type of religion that helps people fill in what is missing in their lives that they could not find in more traditional, mainstream religions. They want to reconnect to an ancient past, find a new way to relate to the Gods, share their unique personal experiences pertaining to the spirit world, and connect with free-thinkers of a like mind and soul.

Witches are not hippies, but many of us have learned from them. Nor are we a sub-branch of New Age spiritualism. We are not a passing fad or trend, yet groups of teens will always be fascinated with becoming the fantasy kind of Witch or the Goth type that drearily stares out at us from many illustrations today. The real witches, like me, owe it to these young people, and to the ones who just don’t get it to give some clear answers that will break the cycle of misconception.

The title ‘Witch’ is justly earned by those who have achieved it through initiation, experience, and study. To use this word — Witch — is take back the power stolen from innocent people whose souls were crushed by tyrannical religions and governments. The ancient European pagans were supposed to be wiped from memory. Conquered indigenous people were supposed to be removed from history. Witches were supposed to be the perfect supernatural scapegoat for all humans to blame every misfortune on. In every pocket of the world over the Witch is still referred to as evil, even though there is plenty of common sense to prove there is no need to believe in such a thing, yet why do we like to cling to our demons? There are still places in the world where it is dangerous to be a Witch, yet here we are, reclaiming the word as a means to take back power, redefining the word to be empowered, and reviving it as the word as a jab against ignorance and complacency.  This is my free-form poem definition of Witchcraft:

A religion for free thinkers, misfits, rebels, feminists, freedom fighters, misunderstood heroes, and other pius oddballs who, despite ridicule, end up making a difference in the world NOT by using their ridiculous talents and mysterious skills and tenacious willpower, with the cooperation of many invisible friends (spirits) and Gods everyone else likes to believe are fiction, but because they still wield extraordinarily frightening influence over the minds and hearts of people everywhere by merely mentioning that they are a WITCH !

So, where did Witches come from? They were conceived by the fearful imagination of those who don’t want us to think for ourselves. They were born out of the minds of people who are scared of us stepping out of line. Witches are the nightmares of dictators. And no matter how many times they seek to destroy us, we are beyond all control.

What shall I write about next?  Did I answer all the questions I listed at the beginning of this article?  It is now 6:20am, I have been writing all night, so focused on my task, I can barely hold my head up and I feel like I have repeated myself several times.  I want to do some more myth-breaking-writing.  Something about where all the cartoon witch symbolism stemmed from, yet that will have to wait until next week!


6 thoughts on “Where Witches Came From

    1. Oh, awesome! I’m happy that it did. I was a little worried that parts of the history may not have been complete. Feel free to pass it on and share. If anyone comes across anything I need to correct, I don’t mind! I like to consider this article a work in progress. Once again, I appreciate your feedback. Yay!

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