Witchcraft. That is an ambiguous word. Its meaning varies dramatically according to who is speaking and who they are speaking to. In college I learned one definition in an Anthropology class, another in a Sociology class and yet another in a History class. In church as a little girl I learned yet another definition. Even within the Pagan community, where many of us actually practice Witchcraft, there are myriad definitions. I have my own. You do too.

So which one is correct? All of them. None of them.

In my Anthroplogy class I learned that Witchcraft is a spiritual condition that occasionally besets an individual that allows that individual to voluntarily or involuntarily bring harm to another (sickness, bad luck, infertility, etc.) triggered by strong emotions, especially jealousy. The term came from some African tribes that hold this belief and employed Witch Doctors who used divination to determine who the Witch was and prescribe a remedy. Usually if the Witch was willing to go through the remediation process, (a ritual of purification) and the victim recovered, after going through his or her own remediation process (purification ritual, medical treatment), everything would end peacefully. If the Witch refused to participate or the victim did not recover or more victims were identified, the Witch may be killed to end the hex.

I always felt that this was a rather narrow definition that is lacking in so many ways. You'll notice that the positive magic is most emphatically not witchcraft. Only the negative magic is witchcraft.  Where did this definition come from anyway? Africa? No. The various tribal people certainly had/have a word for this thing that happens and it's not "Witchcraft" because Witchcraft is an English word from a proto-Indo-European root. Some white guy went and observed this phenomena in a few tribes and told everyone this was Witchcraft and told the tribes people that is the word for it, instead of accepting whatever their word was for it. Until some white guy decided that this was Witchcraft, it wasn't. It was something else.

To me, it sounds more like how I define the Evil Eye more than what I envision as Witchcraft. The Evil Eye, in my own understanding, is a curse that can befall someone based on the emotions of another. This is where various Eastern European and Latin American superstitious actions such as, never praising another's child (lest it be construed as jealousy), spitting on brides (to demonstrate that you are not jealous). These actions may have evolved either to avoid being accused of giving someone the Evil Eye or to avoid giving some nosy and inappropriately "helpful" ancestral spirit the idea that you wanted their "help" dealing with a rival.

Either way, jealousy is a powerful emotion. All emotions are, in fact, powerful. I truly believe that powerful, directed emotion is the foundation of successful spell working. Since jealousy is often uncontrollable (try to stop feeling jealous even though you know you're being stupid), its result will naturally be chaotic.

In the Sociology of Religion class I took, Witchcraft was defined (paraphrasing here) as the ability to exert supernatural control over ones environment as the result of making a pact with an evil entity. Now this definition clearly bears the ethnocentric mark of Christianity (something Anthropology tries to stay away from). The thing about Sociology that got under my skin is that it was always focused on what was normal, how things should be and who was deviant. Witchcraft, according to Sociology, is definitely deviant. But deviant just means "outside the norm". What the hell is an "evil" entity anyway? Well, evil entities are naturally the opposite of "good" entities. Good entities are the entities everyone who isn't deviant tries to make pacts with in order to exert supernatural control over their environments. As Anthropology would point out, this is a societal control mechanism. I don't know if Sociology would agree because I blew it off after two classes.

The historical definition of Witchcraft is, of course, based on history- You know, the stuff the winners wrote down. In this case, the winners were the the folks left standing and their definition is very similar to the one Sociology adopted basically a pact with a devil in exchange for supernatural powers. And, you know, this is an accurate definition of what witchcraft was according to those who used the word historically. During the Witch trial period, the people who were accused of Witchcraft and sentenced to death were accused of making a pact with a devil and thus acquiring and using supernatural powers. The fact that the vast majority of the people killed during this time were not witches by this or any other definition doesn't matter. This is what they were accused of.

In Church, as a child, I was taught that a Witch, as in "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" actually meant "poisoner", in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Like a malicious gossip. I don't know how accurate that is, but that's what I was taught.

This leads us now to the Pagan community where the meaning of the word Witchcraft is even more contentious.

To some, Witchcraft is a religion, most specifically Wicca. Do you know how much that annoys the non-Wiccan Witches? Some of us have sought better words to use so we can define ourselves separately from a religion that has nothing to do with us. I personally have had no success. The fact is, Witchcraft means Wicca to Wiccans and it means something else to me. Nobody's right or wrong, it's just how it is.

This is because various scholars have stated that an ancient religion existed in Europe that incorporated magic and surmised that this religion was being persecuted during "The Burning Times" and Wicca claims to be of the line of that religion. Of course while it is only logical that Europe was covered with magico-religious cults before the "civilizing" influence of Christianity, but it is not logical to assume that these people had anything to do with The Burning Times-  being a Pagan, Heretic, Unbeliever was enough of a punishable offense without hiding it behind the guise of Witchcraft. The Witchcraft of the Burning Times did not resemble Pagan magic in the least.

However, the facts here do not matter. We are talking about religion and religion is not based on fact, its based on myth. I am not using the word myth here to say that something is false or a lie. Mythology is cultural truth regardless of what the facts are.

To me, Witchcraft is the craft of using the knowledge of the energies present in the natural world to bring about changes. This includes your own energy shaped by your own emotions as discussed above as well as the energy of places, objects, herbs, and the energy of the spirit world through developing relationships, yes pacts, with various spirits. The work of spells is merely to set the mood so you can shape and direct the energies appropriately. And sometimes to get the attention of various spirits so you can make the appropriate ahem pacts.

But I suppose some people would call this Shamanism rather than Witchcraft. Or something else. I don't know what.

Ah. Semantics.


More like this

Comments, questions, criticism?

Add a New Comment