Which Is Witch? (or ... What Is a Witch?)

Taken from the Introduction of
Witchraft: Exploring the World of Wicca

by Craig S. Hawkins

It is difficult to define with precision the beliefs and practices of contemporary witches. This is because of the elasticity of the terms witch and witchcraft as they have been applied to people and practices both today and throughout history. It is also because of the great diversity that exists within the contemporary movement. Moreover, witches disagree among themselves as to what constitutes a witch. [1]

In an article titled "Witchcraft: An Inside View," J. Gordon Melton mentions four ways in which the one word witchcraft has been applied: [2]

  1. Anthropologists, anthropological studies, and Christian missionaries have labeled any and all types of shamanism and sorcery and many forms of healing as witchcraft.
  2. Old Testament Bible students and historians have classified the ob of Endor (see 1 Samuel 28) as a witch. (Whatever an ob was, we do know they worked with herbs, potions, poisons, and mediumship. Thus, an ob was some type of an occultist.)
  3. The term witch has been appropriated by church and secular historians for what has been termed medieval diabolical witchcraft.
  4. Witches have been confused with Satanists. [3] About the only things witches and Satanists have in common as far as their respective beliefs are concerned are that they are involved in the occult -- a magical worldview -- and generally have no real use for Christianity. While this latter confusion concerning witches and Satanists is understandable, it is, nonetheless, incorrect.

Perhaps a contemporary example from two different cultic groups will help to illustrate the point. If a Jehovah's Witness believes what the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society teaches, he or she is not a Christian and is not saved, since that group denies all of the essential teachings of historic orthodox Christianity. [4] Likewise with a Mormon who subscribes to what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints says. [5] Nonetheless, the Jehovah's Witness does not believe what the Mormon does or vice versa. Thus, though both belief systems are false, we should not confuse the two. The same is true with witchcraft and Satanism and/or other occultic systems.

One of the most common definitions for what constitutes a witch is anyone who is involved in some form of the occult (e.g., palm readers, tarot card readers, ritual magicians/sorcerers, Satanists, voodoo practitioners -- everything from alchemists to necromancers and astral projection to visualization). One reason for this is because the most common English translations of the Bible (e.g., King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New International Version, New American Standard Bible) have used the English words witch and witchcraft to translate Hebrew and Greek words that designated various types of occultists and occultic practices, such as divination, magic/sorcery, and spiritism. In keeping with the meaning of the original biblical languages and in light of the changing definitions of these words through history, I will reserve the terms witch and witchcraft here. This statement should in no sense be seen as an endorsement of other types of occultism, which are clearly condemned in God's Word (see chapter 5).

It is not merely believing in or practicing magic or divination that makes a person a witch. That is a far too inclusive definition that would cover every paganistic practitioner and occultist in creation. Witchcraft constitutes a given segment of the occult but not the whole spectrum.

Some authors have offered elaborate classification systems to more accurately define witchcraft. [6] This has the advantage not only of distinguishing the way the word witch has historically been applied but also of distinguishing contemporary types of witchcraft from these other types of witchcraft, or so-called witchcraft, and among the various types of witchcraft within the contemporary movement today. Isaac Bonewits, a neopagan, has probably developed the most detailed scheme in this regard. [7] He lists the following: Classic, Shamans, Gothic, Familial (also known as Family Traditions or Fam-Trads), Immigrant, Neopagan, Feminist, Neoclassical, Neogothic, Neoshammanic, Ethnic, and Anthropological witches.

Before I give my definitions of witchcraft and witch please keep in mind the following quote from Margot Adler: "Since the Craft is decentralized and each coven is autonomous, no single definition applies to all Wiccans [witches]." [8] For the sake of accuracy, consistency, and clarity, I will limit the terms witchcraft and witch to the following definitions:

  • Witchcraft: Also known as wicca, the craft, or the craft of the wise.) An antidogmatic, antiauthoritarian, diverse, decentralized, eclectic, experience-based, nature-oriented religious movement whose followers are polytheists and/or pantheists and/or panentheists, and in some sense believe in or experience and/or invoke and/or worship the Mother Goddess and generally her consort the Horned God as well. It is a generic term covering numerous perspectives on the subject.

  • Witches: Individuals who practice or concur with the views or experiences of witchcraft. Most view divinity as immanent in nature, seeing all life as sacred, thus, denying any sacred/secular distinction. They are nature-oriented and also see no ultimate distinction between matter and spirit--the material and the spiritual. They may believe in or invoke a pantheon of gods and goddesses, but they primarily experience, and/or invoke, and/or worship the Mother or Triple Goddess and her male consort, the Horned God. Witches generally practice multiple forms of divination, participate in trance and other altered states of consciousness, and perform magical spells and incantation. Most observe seasonal holidays and festivals (e.g., the summer and winter solstices). Most believe in some form of reincarnation. The widely believed notion that a female is a witch whereas a male practitioner is a warlock or wizard is a misnomer. The terms witch or wiccan apply to both genders.

To use Isaac Bonewits's terminology, these definitions include only Neopagan, some Neoshammanic, Feminist, and some Familial witchcraft. I will not apply the term witch to occultists such as mediums, psychics, Satanists, etc. Nor will I use witchcraft for other occultic practices, although they are nonetheless anathematized in the Bible. [9]

  1. Margot Adler. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today rev. and exp. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 41-43, 66-72, 99-107.

  2. J. Gordon Melton. "Witchcraft: An Inside View," Christianity Today, 21 October 1983, 24. For examples of these usages, see Jeffrey B. Russell, A history of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982).

  3. See Craig S. Hawkins. "The Many Faces of Satanism," Forward 9, no. 2 (Fall 1986).

  4. Walter Martin and Norman Klann. Jehovah of the Watchtower, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1974).

  5. Walter Martin. The Maze of Mormonism, rev. and enl. ed. (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1978).

  6. Adler. Drawing Down the Moon, 42-43, 66-72; Isaac Bonewits, Real Magic, rev. ed (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1989), 104-12; Marcello Truzzi, Towards a Sociology of the Occult: Notes on Modern Witchcraft," in Religious Movements in Contemporary America, ed. Irving Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974, 638-41.

  7. Bonewits. Real Magic 104-12.

  8. Adler. Drawing Down the Moon,, 99.

  9. Hawkins. "The Many Faces of Satanism," 17, 22.

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