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Witchcraft - A Visit to the Witch - Edward F. Brewtnall

Are Witches Real? A Primer on Modern Witchcraft and Magick

When you think of witches, the imagery that comes to mind is usually rooted in fiction.

You might imagine characters from Harry Potter or The Wizard of Oz. Women in pointy hats, riding broomsticks and casting hexes on innocent bystanders. Most people consider them great storytelling fodder, but believe it or not, real witches walk among us…

And they’re nothing like that. (Usually.)

In its simplest definition, witchcraft is the practice of magick. Magick, as occultist Aleister Crowley defined it, is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”

Hi, I’m Serena and I’m a witch.

Today I’m going to explain what witchcraft really is, where it came from and what it looks like today. I’d like to preface this article by saying that these observations are purely based on my own research and personal experience.

I’m by no means the ultimate authority on what it means to be a witch, but this is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, and it’s a large part of my life. So if you’re interested in witchcraft yourself or just want to understand what all this magic business is about, let’s dive in!

 

Halloween Witch

 

What Is Witchcraft?

To start, we should probably clear up some misconceptions about witchcraft. Witches don’t believe that magic (or “magick,” depending on your preference) works the way it does in movies or on TV.

We don’t wave wands around and transform our teacups into toads, and most of us don’t worship the devil or even believe a devil actual exists.

Some witches do consider themselves Satanists, although there are plenty of misconceptions surrounding them as well. (Satanists don’t actually believe in an entity called Satan either, and are generally laid-back atheists who enjoy indulging in the occasional ritual.)

In its simplest definition, witchcraft is the practice of magick. Magick, as occultist Aleister Crowley defined it, is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”

Many witches don’t really wonder why [magick] works, just like we don’t need to completely understand electricity to turn on a light switch; we’ve experienced results and come to trust in them.

Llewellyn Worldwide, a metaphysical publisher, expands on this definition, stating that “magick is the science and art of causing change (in consciousness) to occur in conformity with will, using means not currently understood by traditional Western science.”

I think this is a pretty good definition—most spells and rituals all boil down to performing actions that magnify our intentions and lead to a desired outcome.

We focus on our intention, choose items that magnify this intention (such as herbs, crystals or other objects) and work with them in a way that raises our energy and releases it into the universe.

This is the point where people usually say, “Well then, why don’t witches win the lottery all the time if magick is so great?”

 

Witchcraft - The Magic Circle - John William Waterhouse
The Magic Circle – John William Waterhouse

I can give you my own answer. The universe is made up of energy; we have the ability to manipulate this energy to a certain extent. However, everyone else also has this ability whether they’ve worked at it or not. Therefore, when you want something to happen very badly, you’re vying against the energy of everyone else who wants the same thing.

For the lottery, you can certainly improve your chances through magick, but you’re still going up against the energy of every other person who desperately wants to win. We can never guarantee that our work alone is enough to make a change happen. We can only improve our chances.

Before modern medicine, it was not uncommon for people to use folk remedies involving plants in order to treat their ailments, but those people would not necessarily have considered themselves witches.

I think most witches have differing opinions on how magick works, so not everyone will agree with my explanation. Many witches don’t really wonder why it works, just like we don’t need to completely understand electricity to turn on a light switch; we’ve experienced results and come to trust in them.

Things get a little muddy when trying to nail down what, exactly, makes one a witch. Using crystals? Whipping up herbal remedies? Meditating? A lot of people love the general concept of “witchy” things yet oppose the idea of witchcraft itself.

I personally think the only real criteria for being a witch is to consider oneself a witch. That’s it.

It’s also important to note that “witch” is a gender-neutral term. There are male witches, female witches, nonbinary witches and genderfluid witches. Anyone can be a witch regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age or anything else.

Note that witchcraft and Wicca are not the same. We’ll talk a little more about how Wicca came about and how it’s different later on.

 

History of Witchcraft

Now that we know what witchcraft is, where did it come from?

This is where things get tricky, because a lot of the information circulating on the history of witchcraft is wrong. Many Wiccan authors assert that their religion is ancient and that people have practiced it since the dawn of time.

In reality, Wicca and witchcraft as we know it today have only developed recently.

 

Druid Temple - George Hodan
Ancient druidic and pagan practices existed long before our concept of witchcraft

So then, what of historical witches? I think we need to consider how we define “witch” before we move on. Many of the things that we consider to be a part of witchcraft today (using herbs and plants for healing, celebrating the Wheel of the Year, worshipping deities, etc.) were just a normal part of life for many people throughout history.

The witchcraft of today might have roots in ancient practices, but back then people didn’t use our terminology.

Before modern medicine it was not uncommon for communities to use folk remedies involving plants in order to treat their ailments, but again, those people would not necessarily have considered themselves “witches.”

In the late 19th century, three Freemasons founded an organization called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This group dedicated themselves to the study of metaphysics and the paranormal, and they influenced many later iterations of witchcraft as well as Wicca itself.

Likewise, the Wheel of the Year is based on celebrations of nature that have occurred for centuries, and before Christianity spread throughout the world many cultures revered their own pantheons of gods and goddesses.

In fact, many of the people persecuted for being witches throughout history were not witches at all, but simply people (mostly women and other minorities) that society considered a threat.

In 1486, two religious men wrote a text called Malleus Maleficarum, a book that lays out how to tell if someone is a witch and how to punish them. This book led to a witch hunt throughout Europe that today we call the “Burning Times.”

There’s a lot of debate about how many “witches” were actually killed during the Burning Times. Some sources say millions, but many scholars estimate that it was closer to the tens of thousands.

These people were mainly women, Jews and other minorities that Catholicism saw as a threat. It’s impossible to know how many were actually witches and how many were just scapegoats being labeled as heretics.

 

Witchcraft at Salem Village - William A. Crafts

 

In early America, the Salem Witch Trials are a similar example of what happened during the Burning Times. During these trials a few young girls began to accuse their neighbors of witchcraft, which led to mass hysteria.

The Salem Witch Trials were peculiar because while these young girls really did take ill with some sort of mysterious ailment, their accusations were motivated by their own agendas.

Eventually, anyone who was an outcast or spoke out against the trials became a potential victim, and over one hundred people were accused of witchcraft. By the end of the trials the justice system had eighteen people executed. It’s likely that none of them were actual witches.

 

Development of Modern Witchcraft

Once executing people for witchcraft went out of vogue, society reversed its trajectory and began taking an interest in the occult.

In the late 19th century, three Freemasons founded an organization called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This group dedicated themselves to the study of metaphysics and the paranormal, and they influenced many later iterations of witchcraft as well as Wicca itself.

We have members of the Golden Dawn to thank for the development of tarot, as A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith collaborated to create the Rider-Waite-Smith that’s used as the standard tarot deck today.

Wicca is a unique spirituality in that while there is a loose structure, it’s flexible in terms of what you believe and how you practice.

You might be surprised to learn that there were a few famous faces in this quirky group as well: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and W.B. Yeats were all among the members of the Golden Dawn.

In the 1950s, a man named Gerald Gardner founded what we now know as Wicca. It was based on the ideas of deity worship, love of nature and practicing magic. It spread quickly throughout Europe and the United States in the 60s, as it offered spirituality and structure without a lot of the dogma that other religions tended to enforce.

 

Wheel of the Year
A depiction of the Wheel of the Year

Wicca is a unique spirituality in that while there is a loose structure, it’s flexible in terms of what you believe and how you practice. Some people practice Wicca in a coven while others go solo; some worship an entire pantheon of deities while others only worship the Goddess.

A few of the common tenets of Wicca are:

  • Belief in the Goddess and possibly other deities
  • Belief in the three-fold law: Whatever you put out into the world will return to you three times over.
  • Celebrating nature and the Wheel of the Year
  • Following the Wiccan Rede, the most famous line of which states, “If it harm none, do what you will.”

While many Wiccans identify as witches, not all witches are Wiccans.

Witchcraft is a more general spirituality that cropped up alongside Wicca and gained more traction from the 70s through the present. It’s hard to nail down what exactly witchcraft is because it’s different for so many people.

Some witches worship deities while others don’t; some practice divination, some work with spirits, some are into astrology, some do crystal healing, some gather in covens and some don’t do any of these things. It’s really up to you to decide for yourself whether you’re a witch and what that entails for you.

 

Resources on Witchcraft

If you’d like to learn more about practicing witchcraft, there are a few resources I can recommend:

 

Drawing Down the Moon - Margot Adler

Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler

This is a great history of the development of witchcraft and Wicca in the modern world, and it takes a holistic approach: a must-read for every witch and Wiccan. The author interviewed many groups of practitioners to learn about their inspirations and beliefs.

 

Wicca a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner - Scott Cunningham

Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham

A solid introduction to Wicca and/or witchcraft. Even though this a guide to Wicca, I think it’s a good read for all witches. It explains a lot of terms and concepts you’ll see often. This is a great place to start and see what works for you and what doesn’t.

 

The Inner Temple of Witchcraft - Christopher Penczak

The Inner Temple of Witchcraft by Chris Penczak

This is one of the first books on witchcraft I read, and it does a wonderful job of breaking down basic practices. There are a few instances of cultural appropriation, but otherwise the exercises included are a great way to get started.

 

Blogs on Witchcraft

Penniless Pagan | The Witch of Lupine HollowFlying the Hedge

 


 

Respecting Diversity Outside of Witchcraft

It’s important to take these resources in stride. There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding the history of witchcraft and Wicca, and also a lot of cultural appropriation in the witchcraft community.

Some witches think it’s okay to cherry-pick aspects of other cultures that they want (“spirit animals” and “smudging” being the most common) without really understanding or respecting that culture, which most of the time does not wish to be borrowed from.

I could write an entire separate article on the subject of cultural appropriation in witchcraft, but for now I’ll just say that if there’s a concept you like—having an animal spirit guide, for instance—there’s probably a way to incorporate that concept into your practice without using a term that’s sacred to another culture and refers to something you can’t fully understand as an outsider.

 

Circe Invidiosa - Waterhouse
Circe Invidiosa – John William Waterhouse

Words matter, so keep an open mind and know that just because an author recommends something doesn’t mean it’s always a great idea.

At the end of the day, witchcraft is largely about recognizing your own power to create positive change in your life and learning how to use it. It’s about trying to reclaim the part of us that comes from nature and is always in tune with it, about working with the flow of the world around us to achieve our goals and desires.

While there are many ways to involve yourself in witchcraft, I think that versatility is part of its beauty. Although some days I do wish it was all as simple as Harry Potter.

If you have any further questions about witches or want to know about a specific aspect of witchcraft, feel free to let me know in the comments!

Serena Hawthorne

Serena Hawthorne

Serena is a tarot-reading witch and proud cat mom from southeast Wisconsin. She helps clients find clarity in their lives by promoting holistic care, spiritual guidance and everyday magic. She blogs at Lavender-Moon.com.
Serena Hawthorne

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