Despite the ugly face that’s been put on witches, historically most have been concerned with helping individuals and communities. Of course, there are some “wicked witches” just as there are greedy evangelists and pedophile priests. It’s important, however, to remember that fear and misunderstanding underlie the misconceptions many people hold about witches. Once you get to know them, witches are pretty much like everyone else––the person who cuts your hair or repairs your car might even be a witch.
The word witch comes from the Anglo-Saxon term wicce meaning “to bend or shape.” The Old English word wiccacraeft meant witchcraft.
In the past, many witches learned their art as part of a family tradition in which they were carefully trained. Villages had their honored cunning folk to whom people turned for all kinds of help, from encouraging crops to grow to fixing a broken heart. Healing comprised a large part of the witch’s work, and many witches were herbalists and midwives. In exchange for services, the witch might have received a chicken, a measure of grain, or other necessities.
Witches learned their skills as a craft, just as someone might learn carpentry or masonry. Religious constructs weren’t linked with the practice of witchcraft itself, though individual witches may have followed the beliefs of their families or culture. Witches do not need to believe in divine beings in order to use magick, although many do recognize higher powers and attempt to work with them. Nor do witches need to adhere to a particular dogma in order to perform their work, just as computer programmers and auto mechanics don’t have to be members of a particular faith to do their jobs.
For the record, witches are not necessarily Wiccan. Witchcraft implies a methodology (for example, the use of magick), whereas the word Wiccan refers to a person who has adopted a specific spiritual philosophy. Wicca is a religion, one that even the U.S. military recognizes. Wiccans practice specific rituals and moral codes just as people of Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths do. Witches can follow any religion, or none.
However, the lack of an ethical or religious construct does not mean witches are without ethics or religion. The use of magick is simply a means to an end and is, in itself, morally neutral. Ethics get involved only in how magick is wielded.
By the way, a male witch is not called a warlock. He is a witch, too. Warlock derived from an Old English word for oath breaker; later, during the mid-1400s, the word came to mean liar (whether the person was male or female). To call a male witch a warlock is a nasty insult. The words wizard and sorcerer can be used for a man or a woman. Wizard derives from a term meaning “wise,” and sorcerer means “witch” or “diviner.”
The word magician is also appropriate for both sexes and refers to someone who practices magick, regardless of his/her religious beliefs. (The “k” at the end of the word magick differentiates it from stage magic or illusion). Many magicians are adept in astrology, sorcery, or other magickal arts. Magicians come from various cultures and ethic backgrounds, belief systems and schools of thought. Most witches and Wiccans practice some type of magick, but not all magicians are witches or Wiccans. Shamans, ceremonical magicians, feng shui masters, and many others engage in various forms of magick. According to Aleister Crowly, perhaps the most famous magician in modern times, “Every intentional act is a magickal act.”
If you choose to follow a magickal path, as a witch, Wiccan, wizard, sorcerer, or other practitioner of the magickal arts, you’ll notice that everyone you meet is your teacher. In turn, you’ll teach something to everyone you meet. You’ll also discover that magick exists everywhere, all the time, and that you are part of the magick.
(Excerpted from my book The Everything Wicca & Witchcraft Book. Magickal artwork comes from my deck of "I Am" vision cards. All material copyrighted.)