Thanks to reclaiming.org for this helpful breakdown. I have added and changed things to better reflect my own understandings –
1. What is Witchcraft?
Witchcraft is a religion, though decentralized and without dogma or holy books. Historically, Wicca is one type of Witchcraft, but recently the term “Wicca” is sometimes applied to Witchcraft in general. These days in North America, people who practice this religion may call themselves Witches or Wiccans. It is an earth-based religion. The religion of Witchcraft or Wicca is recognized by most state governments, the federal government, and the United States Armed Forces. Courts have recognized the right of prisoners to practice this religion on an equal basis with other religions. While this may seem like a strange measure of validity, it speaks mostly to the long, hard work that many Witches have done to fight institutional oppression against practitioners of Witchcraft in North America.
Yes and no. It is a modern religion, but it is partly based on what we know about the beliefs and practices of people in Old Europe, centuries before Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Many Witches are very interested in reaching way, way back in human history — as far as 25,000 years ago, because they believe that in those times, religion in the Middle East and Europe was based on the idea the earth itself is sacred, and that divine power exists in everything in nature. But modern Witches also blend ideas and practices from many times and cultures, which is a post-modern thing to do. Some witches are very concerned with issues of cultural appropriation and others are less so. Also, we add our own understanding and new interpretations to old traditions, and create new forms of religious practice that are appropriate for today.
Sometimes people call Witchcraft, “the Old Religion” because they believe it is connected to the beliefs of people in pre-Christian Europe. Witchcraft is part of what is called “Neo-Paganism,” which is a modern trend in Canada, the United States and Europe. Neo-Pagans are people who are exploring nature-based religious traditions which have historical roots in pre-Christian European culture. Other modern Pagans include, for example, Druids, Church of All Worlds, Feraferia, and Radical Faery.
The word ‘Witch” is a very powerful word. Witches have chosen to use it, even though we realize that it sometimes causes misunderstanding.
The attitude toward the word “witch” in wider society is paradoxical. On the one hand, most people will say they do not “believe in witches.” Yet they react strongly, even fearfully, when they learn that someone is a Witch. Some of the explanation must be the influence of Hollywood and certain fairy tales that describe witches as ugly old women with evil intentions and supernatural powers.
Although there is debate among scholars about this subject, most Witches believe that for thousands of years in Europe, the people in a village known as “witches” were highly respected women whom everyone consulted for advice about illness, injury, childbirth, and even emotional troubles. They were mainly women, and they had special knowledge about herbs and various kinds of remedies. They were protectors of human life, and also loved, protected and respected animals and plants.
Using the word “Witch,” then, reflects admiration for the role that modern Witches believe these people of ancient times played in the life of their communities and a desire to be like them. Also, using this word reminds everyone that long ago, in European culture, there were women with special knowledge and skills and the power to heal and help — so as the word, “‘Witch,” is reclaimed.
Note that people of all genders are called “Witch,” and most Witches do not generally use terms such as “warlock” or “male witch” for men.
Yes and no. We do not believe in a father-figure who lives in some place other than earth, and who rewards and punishes people. But we do use the word “god” (sometimes spelled “godd”). More often, though, witches use the word “goddess.” For Witches these two words mean something very different from how people in the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim faiths use them.
The earth is the most familiar and beloved part of the universe to humans, spinning in the sky like all the planets and stars, its origins and destiny unknown and possibly unknowable. The earth is literally the source of life and when we die our bodies return to the earth, so it is through the earth that we are connected to the mystery and beauty of the cosmos. We believe that our most important lessons come from nature, since that is what surrounds us, and we are part of it. For us, the earth is sacred, meaning something to be cherished and given our highest respect, and worth dedicating our lives to protecting. We often call the earth “the Mother,” and “the Goddess.”
The “God” is a very different concept; it means all that lives, grows, and dies — so that includes all plants and animals. Sometimes the sun represents the God because every year it grows bright in the summer, and fades (or dies) in the winter.
Obviously, people of all genders have both God and Goddess energy in them, and divinity is mysterious and not always expressed within gender binaries. Many things in nature are associated with aspects of the Goddess and the God. A mountain may represent the Goddess and the power to endure, to sustain strength. A snake, which can shed its skin, also represents the Goddess and the power to transform, while an egg may represent the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth. The “Horned God” refers to animals with horns and antlers–sheep, goats, deer–and represents that aspect of our own natures which is wild and untamed. The “Green One” refers to the young God, the new grasses and plants in springtime, and represents our own powers of tenderness and vulnerability as well as the miracle of rebirth and rejuvenation. There has been a lot of work done within recent years to make the language and imagery used in some traditions more accessible to gender-queer and trans people who find traditional representations of Goddess and God alienating.
Often, Witches today call on the Goddess or the God using names that come from other historical periods, and other cultures, especially Celtic, Greek, and Roman — but some Witches also use the names of Egyptian, African, Scandinavian, Native American, Chinese, and Indian gods and goddesses. This is a very modern phenomenon, since obviously, a woman living in a small village in Scotland 500 years ago would probably not have known about the religions of these other cultures. But for modern Witches, discovering the many connected concepts in various spiritual traditions, and feeling that we are sharing an understanding of the sacredness of nature, and of spiritual power, with other cultures and other times has become a part of our religious life. Most people try to be careful not to “rip off” or misappropriate other people’s spiritual practices: we do not imitate other religions, but we recognize that different cultures always affect each other when they come in contact, so some witches are open to the influence of other religions which are harmonious with ours. This conversation is very alive in some communities and disagreement about the “appropriateness” of people using religious and cultural symbols, deities and tools other than those from their own heritage is complex, personal and loaded.
No. Witches don’t even believe in Satan. It might be that, during the Inquisition, the Inquisitors confused their idea of the Devil with the Witches’ idea of the Horned God – but that concept is actually related to animal life and has nothing to do with an evil god or spirit who causes harm. (Satanism is a completely different religion from Witchcraft, but articles in newspapers and magazines often confuse the two, or think they are the same thing. Some of the confusion may arise from the fact that the symbol of the pentacle, a five-pointed star enclosed in a circle, is an important symbol in both religions. Most witches use the pentacle with one point at the top, although a few use the “inverted” pentacle, with two points of the star at the top. The “inverted” star is generally used in Satanism.)
No. There is no single sacred text that all Witches read or believe contains divine truth. Some specific Traditions within the Craft may have a particular book or text which is used by adherents of that Tradition, or which contains authoritative teaching, or is required reading. However, any book calling itself a “Bible” for Witches is not an especially sacred book for all witches, like the Bible for Christians, or the Koran for Muslims, or the Torah for Jews. Generally it is just a title that the publisher or author hoped would sell books.
Many Witches have read and been influenced by books written by various authors about Witchcraft and magic. Some Witches also draw on the research and writings of people in other fields of study, including history, anthropology, philosophy, feminist theory, and even biology and other sciences. Since Witchcraft is a nature religion, many Witches study plant and animal life. But many Witches do not rely on reading at all for learning about their religion. They may learn from other Witches, or may draw on their own direct experiences and what they learn through their own religious practice, either alone or with their covens or with their wider community.
Many Witches or covens have their own personal journal, usually called a “Book of Shadows” in which they record things that are important to their religious understanding and growth.
No. There are religions that do animal sacrifice, but Witchcraft is not one of them. Most Witches love animals, and have beloved pets. Many Witches work for animal rights, and are against using animals in experiments. Many Witches are vegetarians. As for sacrificing people – that’s ridiculous – of course not.
Yes. One of our most basic rules is: Harm no-one, and you may do as you wish. (The traditional words are: “An (meaning “if”) it harm none, do what ye will.”) It sounds simple, but this law requires us to consider the consequences of our actions very carefully. Under this principle comes one of our favorite sayings of the Goddess: “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.”
In the natural order of things, a person is born, grows to become adult, and eventually dies in old age. Anything we do that protects this natural order is good. So this includes things like: taking good care of our children; doing scientific research to find better medicines; driving safely; protecting our bodies; protecting the environment. When something interferes with the natural cycle of birth, maturity, and natural death, it may be considered bad – for example: starvation; war; murder; car accidents; pollution; the destruction of land bases leading to mass extinction.
The Spirit is the Center of the Circle: it is life, which is created by the elements of Air, Fire, Water and Earth. In our belief system, life is part of a continuous circle with death. We sing, “Air I am, Fire I am, Water, Earth and Spirit I am.” We also sing, “We are a Circle within a Circle, with no beginning and never ending.” Many Witches also believe the Spirit is our consciousness that exists independent of our bodies, and that lives forever.
Yes, most Witches believe in some form of reincarnation, or rebirth — either in the sense that we all get recycled because everything comes from the earth and our bodies go back into the earth when we die, or in the sense that our individual identity, our spirit, becomes connected to a new person or life-form. Witches do not believe in heaven or hell.
Most Witches would acknowledge that they cannot prove their beliefs one way or another, so we call this area of belief an area of Mystery. But most Witches would agree with this song: “It’s the blood of the ancients that runs through our veins, and the forms pass, but the circle of life remains.” We are all aware of our connections with our ancestors, and of the fact that, in some sense, we will live in our descendants.
Yes. Just as there are Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Russian Orthodox, Quaker, Pentecostal, and many other sects of Christianity and there are Conservative, Reform and Hassidic Jews, and Shiite, Fundamentalist, and liberal Muslims, Witches belong to dozens of different sects, which we call “Traditions.” Just to name a few, there are: New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn; Gardnerian; Faery; Celtic; and the Reclaiming Tradition which is a feminist and relatively non-hierarchical tradition which began on the West Coast of California.
No. When people say “black magic” what they really mean is “evil magic.” It is unethical for a Witch to use magic to do something that she could not ethically do by other means if they were available.
Most Witches do not generally think of magic itself as “black” or “white”. Some witches feel this distinction is inherently racist and challenge the use of this binary in describing magick. What we do believe is that a person’s intention is the most important thing. And most Witches are extremely reluctant to put out harmful energy, because of the Threefold Law, which says that “everything you do comes back to you three times.”
What about “putting a hex” on someone? Well, if there is a rapist in the neighborhood, a group of Witches might want to restrain him, to keep him from doing further harm, or even to assist the authorities to arrest him. They might get together to try to use their psychic energy to do that. This is a form of hexing because it is trying to keep the rapist from doing something he wants to do. Actually, the “magic” Witches would do in those circumstances is not very different from Christians or Jews “praying” for the same purposes. In both cases, we are using our minds to call on the spirits and powers we believe in, with the intention of affecting something in the world.
During the Inquisition, thousands and thousands of innocent people were accused of “hexing” whenever anything went wrong — if a baby had a birth defect, or the cows got sick, or the rains were late. Witches believe that such events were probably used as excuses to persecute and get rid of the powerful women in the villages. People became so hysterical that many other people were also killed, even children. It is painful & sometimes frightening to modern Witches that such prejudice and ignorance are still alive today.
Of course some particular person could have evil intentions and really do something bad, or even misuse this religion. This is unusual, and tragic when it happens. It is important to remember that usually, when somebody who commits a crime turns out to be Catholic, or Protestant, or Jewish –nobody thinks it is because of their religion they did something bad. Usually the religion of a criminal is not mentioned.
Generally, if you hear of somebody making a dramatic public display of being a “Witch” with evil powers, it is likely that that person is not accepted by real Witches as a sincere and responsible member of the religion. Most real Witches are embarrassed by such people, and upset about the harm they cause by encouraging negative stereotypes. But they are not considered powerful or dangerous otherwise.
A coven, or a circle, is a small group of Witches who meet regularly to practice their religion. It may be that traditionally a coven had 13 members, but nowadays it could have fewer or more. Some Traditions have strict rules about how covens are organized and others have no rules at all about this.
Some covens are all women, or all men; others are mixed. Some are hierarchical with priests or priestesses or leaders with other titles; some are lineage-based; some are affinity-based; and some make their own rules about who can join. Many covens prefer to keep their own way of doing things secret. Members of a coven often become extremely close to each other, and may consider each other as family.
Yes. In some Traditions, everyone is considered to be a Priest or Priestess, and in others only certain people are given that title. Some traditions have a hierarchy and recognize only a few people, or one person, as High Priest or High Priestess, or equivalent title. There is no uniform system of training or accreditation which is used by all Traditions.
The Covenant of the Goddess (called “COG”) is an organization of many covens and circles and is officially recognized in most states as a church or religious organization. It issues legally recognized clergy credentials to qualified people and a Priestess or Priest with these credentials can perform a legally recognized marriage.
Priestesses and Priests also lead many other rites of passage, celebrations and rituals, for example: Funerals; Healing Rituals; Welcomings and Naming Ceremonies for babies; Coming of Age rituals. A “Handfasting” ritual is a ceremony of commitment and/or marriage (legally recognized or not) which may be performed for couples of all genders or for alliances of more than two people.
It is just as difficult to say who the Witches are, as to say who the Jews, or Muslims, or Catholics, or Protestants are. We are waitresses, secretaries, carpenters, lawyers, prisoners, mechanics, soldiers, grandmothers, computer programmers, theologians, gardeners, teachers, etc. We are people of all genders, young and old. Most Witches are of European descent, but some are African-American, Asian-American, Pacific Islanders, Chicanas, mixed race, etc. Some are disabled, some are athletes or dancers. Basically, anybody can be a Witch.
Everyone has to find her or his own spiritual path, and often the path into the Craft is difficult to find. Although there are hundreds of books available and many websites, most Witches are very quiet about their religion. They do not believe in trying to convert people. Those who find their way into the Craft have generally made a significant effort to do so.
Coven meetings are almost never open to outsiders, although some may, rarely, allow outsiders to attend by invitation.
Larger religious services are generally called “rituals” and most are private events open only to those personally invited. Some Traditions do have rituals that are open to the public and held in a public place. Public rituals in the Reclaiming Tradition are announced on the Reclaiming website.
Visitors are welcome to public rituals as long as they come with a respectful attitude, and especially if they would welcome a Witch to visit their own worship service. They will understand more if they read a little first, but it is not necessary. Visitors must be willing to participate with an open mind and heart. It is not usually appropriate just to stand around and watch, unless they are physically unable to participate.