exWitch Australia
Glossary of Wiccan, Neo-Pagan and Occult Terminology


The meaning of the term has varied according to history and perceptions, and the concept of what Witchcraft actually is has sometimes been eclipsed by what Witchcraft is presumed to be.

Early Witchcraft:

The activity which, in Europe, evolved from the art of nomadic tribal shamanism (see SHAMAN).   In certain aspects it was practically indistinguishable from sorcery, augury or divination and is still to be found in primitive societies worldwide based on reverence for the spirits or gods of the natural world and on Sympathetic Magick.   This is arguably closest to the form of Witchcraft described in the books of the Old Testament and was the Witchcraft of the Anglo-Saxons and their successors.   It is based on various influence, including Celtic, Germanic and Norse (see NORSE PAGANISM).

Early Witchcraft bears no direct association with diabolism, although it was portrayed by the early Christian Church as being a form of heathen worship, a view embellished by lurid accounts, including that of the Wild Hunt.   If witches made nocturnal journeys it was to assemblies in which they were obliged to meet under the cover of darkness for their own security.

Medieval and post-medieval Witchcraft Perceptions during the period which, in the British Isles, covered the centuries from the accession of the Tudors until the repeal of the Witchcraft Acts in 1736 differed strongly according to whether the view stemmed from the Church, the public at large, or from practitioners.

The Church of Rome argued the existence of a Witchcraft cult, membership of which involved the making of a blasphemous pact with Satan.   The roots of this attitude, which was also largely supported by the Protestant movement, lay in a number of political and social insecurities, and in the Church's inability to sustain widespread loyalty among the population or to explain or respond to a variety of problems including, most notably, diseases of persons, domestic animals and crops.   Distinction was drawn between Witchcraft, which was linked with diabolism and perceived to be a manifestation of Satan insinuating himself into the persona of an individual, and sorcery, which was merely viewed as an abuse of things found in nature.

Typical of the Catholic Church's viewpoint is that of Jean Bodin, who describes in Daemonomanie how witches come together in certain assemblies and at times prefixed when they do not only see Satan in visible form, but confer and talk familiarly with him.   In which conference Satan exhorteth them to observe their fidelity unto him, promising them long life and prosperity.

The practice of witches was said to include:
  • despising any of the seven sacraments
  • treading on crosses
  • spitting at the time of elevation
  • breaking fast on fasting days and fasting on Sundays.

It was alleged that witches were met at markets and fairs and were commanded by a summoner to assemble at certain hours of the night to advise Satan whom they had killed and how they had profited.     They would then resort to dancing and the singing of bawdy songs.     Reginald Scot, citing Bodin, makes an interesting observation on what is perhaps the real origin of the concept of the witch's broomstick: "If they be lame, he saith the Devil delivereth them a staff, to convey them thither [to the assembly] invisibly, through the air".     He also noted that witches came together in assemblies of fifty rather than the thirteen popularly claimed.

By and large Scot viewed the anti-Witchcraft hysteria emanating from such writers as rubbish.     A typical object of his scorn was Danaeus who claimed that, at the Sabbats, Satan provided powders and roots for magical purposes and gave every initiate a Devil's mark either with his teeth or claws.     Members of the Coven then kissed the Devil's bare buttocks and indulged in incestuous adultery and, when the inevitable consequences came to fruition, the newly born was cut into pieces, its blood drained into pots, its carcass burnt and the ashes mingled with the blood.

The Church's antagonism culminated in the spate of hysterical persecution which reached its climax in the 17th Century and which declined, not primarily through change of religious attitudes, but because among the intelligentsia who comprised the judiciary it ceased to be chic to believe in Witchcraft.

Scot's own observation was that witches were generally women: "who be commonly old, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles, poore, sullen, superstitious and papists; or such as knowe no religion; in whose drousie minds the divell hath gotten a fine seat".

The public at large drew a bl\lrred distinction, between the beneficent and maleficent magical activity in its midst.     It recognized, on the one hand, wizardry and the practices of Cunning Persons that involved finding lost goods, curing ailments, predicting future events and offering herbal remedies.     The lay person also recognized and feared Witchcraft, an activity sometimes involving the application of Maleficia (itself an invention of the Church of Rome), designed to dispense harm to persons and property, and practised as a form of retribution by those who could find no other recourse against social injustice.

The separate concepts of beneficent and maleficent Witchcraft (see MALEFICIA) merged during the reign of Elizabeth I, and throughout the period of the Witch-Craze, swinging towards an activity with evil intent.     There was no special term that distinguished malevolent magicians from those cunning persons who practised healing arts and located lost property but the term Witchcraft generally implied an injurious activity causing harm to other people or their possessions by occult methods, in other words application of the Maleficia.     Scot comments: "It is indifferent to say in the English tongue, 'she is a witch' or 'she is a wise woman '".     As Keith Thomas describes it: In this sense the belief in Witchcraft can be defined as the attribution of misfortune to occult human agency.

To its practitioners, wizardry or Witchcraft was a job of work, no different from that of a lawyer or a surgeon and equally open to quackery, abuse and misuse.     Some adopted it as a means of livelihood, some in the search for power over others, some as a last recourse when all else failed or when the Church had already condemned them as sinners beyond reprieve.

In reality, therefore, the Witchcraft that was subject to extensive persecution in Europe and America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was an activity of persons who applied innate or self-raised powers of magic to dispense forces for good or evil purpose.   From the records of the Assize courts assembled by C L Ewan and later by A MacFarlane, it appears that, while Witchcraft permeated every level of society, most of those actually convicted were women drawn from the lower social strata.     Out of a record of 109 executions on the Home Circuit (Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey, Sussex) only seven were men, and of nearly 600 defendants all but four were tradesmen, labourers, husbandmen and their wives.

If court records of the time are an accurate reflection, some individuals entered into fanciful pacts with Satan but this was by no means universally true.     There is also no demonstrable evidence that, during the medieval period, a 'witch cult' existed either in the British Isles or Europe, or that witches were, to any extent, organized into covens, certainly not consisting of groups of thirteen.     According to Scot, assemblies existed that involved initiation rites but, generally, Witchcraft appears not to have involved ritual Sabbats, nor did its practitioners see themselves as belonging to an 'Old Religion'.     They were mainly isolated individuals who conducted their affairs without clear links to earlier Pagan traditions.

The activity of Witchcraft probably included any unacceptable brand of popular religion even if it was practised without any formal breach with Christianity.     Most of its practitioners, during and prior to the medieval period, strongly refuted any claims that they were other than Christian in their religious beliefs although they undoubtedly respected and made use of Pagan vestiges in the form of festival dates, fertility rites, wells and other sacred places of a pre-Christian pedigree.

Modem Witchcraft (including Wicca):

While there are many forms of Witchcraft in modern Neo-Paganism, Wicca is by far the best known and predominant form.

Since the revival of interest in Paganism during the 20th Century and, particularly, in the early 1950s, Witchcraft has come to represent a religion based on reverence for the natural world, the duality of the God and Goddess based loosely on Celtic deities, initiation and the use of Magick to beneficial and benevolent purpose.     It possesses no association with diabolism and the notion that it possesses traditional and hereditary links with Tudor, Elizabethan or Stuart Witchcraft is now firmly discounted among most Wiccans.

Distinction continues to be drawn between Witchcraft and Sorcery.   Witchcraft is argued to be an innate quality that stems from a psychological peculiarity and which requires no material aids in the form of words, spells or Potions.     Sorcery, in contrast, requires the employment of technical devices and formulae and can be practised by anyone who is suitably informed.



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One of the major problems with 'defining' Paganism and/or its beliefs and practices is that it is an 'organic' movement, in that it is undergoing constant change and re-evaluation from within, and as such any 'one-size-fits-all' approach to understanding Paganism will be found wanting.

Due to the very 'organic' nature of Paganism, and the many differing Paths and Traditions within it, in many cases no one definition may be universally accepted by all Pagans.   Therefore, where such cases of possible conflicting and/or contradictory meanings of certain terms occur I have endevoured to give not only the generally accepted meaning, but also any major 'variations' in belief and/or practice.

Christians who believe this difference in meaning of certain key terms, beliefs and practices to be unique to Paganism need to remember that such conflicts also arise within the Body of Christ - the Church.   Take for instance the differing practices amongst Christians concerning Baptism and the different attitudes towards women in the clergy.

- Jean-Luc
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