Hereditary witchcraft is the transfer from an elder or ancestor, of practices, magic, ritual, belief systems, and culture from one family member to another. Also known as Family Traditionalism or “FamTrad”, hereditary witchcraft is the passing down of a specific witchcraft tradition through family members only. This does not necessarily mean that all practitioners of a FamTrad come from an unbroken line of witches because it only takes two family members to start a hereditary tradition. Practices, medicines and spells specific to each family tradition are closely guarded secrets within a family, much as the Native clans of North America had specific medicine recipes, that if shared with or used by another clan, would result in war. Such families actually existed, mainly as remnants of cultural folk religion and magic which was such an integral part of their daily lives, it was never completely wiped out upon Christianity’s presence over the centuries. The magic and practices found within hereditary witchcraft are more akin to folk magic and ancient shamanism than to today’s Neopaganism and witchcraft practices. The transfer of power and lore to a family member is an old shamanic practice of cultures worldwide who believed living or even deceased family members would teach one of the newer generations the old lore and pass on their familiar spirits to the ‘student’ family member as well.
“The calling of a shaman was generally hereditary in his family, the order being usually from maternal uncle to nephew. Before he died he revealed his spirit to his successor, who might start with a comparatively feeble spirit and acquire stronger and stronger ones.”
Shamanism and Witchcraft by John R. Swanton
Hereditary witchcraft is mainly associated with specific traditional witchcraft and cultural traditions, ranging from the cunning folk and fairy doctors of Celtic countries to the benedicaria and stegoneria of Italy — all of which are among many other family-based folk traditions found throughout the world. There are also some traditional witchcraft covens (in some cases hereditary ones) who will not accept members from outside of their cultural heritage. For example, a coven in Wales would not accept members who are not Welsh. This can be seen as another definition of hereditary witchcraft, where a person only practices a cultural witchcraft tradition from their heritage. However, in this day and age of mass immigration where people may come from two to six different cultural backgrounds, it is very difficult to practice a heritage-specific tradition.
The passing on of traditions through the family is a global concept, and is not restricted to culture or continent. There are many family traditions existing in the United States, of which some good examples would be the Hexerei and pow wow doctors of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the conjurers and witch doctors of the Appalachians and Ozarks — who all bear a striking resemblance to the fairy doctors and cunning folk of Northern Europe — many of whom were hereditary themselves. The traditions of the hexerei were strict and binding – they could only teach one student from the next generation of the family of the opposite sex. In many older witchcraft families in the UK, the traditions of transferring knowledge are thought to follow similar rules.
There is also the cross-cultural folkloric belief in the seventh son of a seventh son being blessed with magical powers such as healing and the sight, this person being a natural born witch or wise person in the eyes of many. In my local community there is an old Scottish witch who is the seventh son of a seventh son. Was he born a witch? You’d have to ask him…
In general, hereditary witches are not found within Wicca, although now that Wicca is over 50 years old there are enough subsequent generations for some to be able to claim they are hereditary due to their parents’ passing on of their Wiccan faith. Hereditary witches are mostly found within traditional witchcraft and culture-based folk religions.
Hereditary witchcraft is not to be confused with Raven Grimassi’s book Hereditary Witchcraft which is focused on his tradition Strega, a Neopagan Italian-based witchcraft tradition.
I’m afraid the resources on hereditary witchcraft are few and far between, as the families still in existence keep to themselves and the rest of the witchcraft community unfortunately doesn’t even believe hereditary witchcraft exists, so I have included as many cultural resources as possible to compensate for this lack.
- Traditional Witchcraft Research Network
- Irish Traditional Witchcraft Forums
- Rue’s Kitchen
- Stregoneria Italiana
- “Hereditary Witchcraft: Fact of Fiction? – Witchvox
- “Charmer” – Traditional Witchcraft Wiki
- “Curandero” – Wikipedia
- “Differences between Benedicaria, Stegoneria, and Stregheria” – Rev. Agostino Taumaturgo
- “Folklore of the Pennsylvania Germans” – Journal of American Folklore
- “Nestinarstvo – A Bulgarian Tradition” – Wikipedia
- “Obeah” – Wikipedia
- “Pow-wow (folk magic)” – Wikipedia
- “Powwowing: A Persistant American Esoteric Tradition” – David W. Kriebel
- “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” – Wikipedia
- “Seventh Sons and Their Seventh Sons” – Chambers Book of Days
- “The Realness of Witchcraft in America” – A. Monroe Aurand
- Appalachian Folkways – John B. Rehder
- Aradia or The Gospel of Witches of Italy – Charles G. Leland
- Balkan Traditional Witchcraft – Radormir Ristic
- Black Books of Elverum – Mary S. Rustad
- Etruscan Roman Remains – Charles G. Leland
- Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries
- Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling – Charles G. Leland
- Ozark Magic & Folklore by Vance Randolph
- Pow Wow Book – A. Monroe Aurand and John George Hohman
- Pow-wows or Long Lost Friend
- Songs of the Russian People – W.R.S. Ralston
- Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways – Gemma Gary