Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?
Tell any non-Pagan with a sense of humour that you are a witch and this familiar question from the Wizard of Oz is usually the response you receive. The familiar reply of Neopagans is “none of us are bad witches, we are only good! We worship the Earth Goddess, eat vegetarian, and hug trees!” Your average arm-chair Pagan with their nose in a book will say: “That’s just a myth, there are no divisions in witchraft and there’s no such thing as bad witches and there never were! Witches were village wise women and men, healers, diviners, and they would never hurt anyone!”
Well those are both lovely if naïve viewpoints akin to removing all the negative cards from a tarot deck and leaving only the positive ones –you can still perform readings, but they will not be complete, truthful, or balanced. A short peek into history as well as local folktales shows these viewpoints come up short on truth. Look to the classic works of the founders of modern witchcraft like Sybil Leek, Doreen Valiente, and Paul Huson and you will find the same warnings against dark sorcerers and black magicians as found in folktale. Legends, which are based on true events and people, all over the world also warn the listener of black magicians hungry to steal power from the souls of the living and curse their enemies; the evil sorcerers from Russian tales (i.e. The Frog Princess), stories of rival shamans from Siberia to British Columbia, Medea and Circe from Greek myth, Black Annis from British folklore, La Ianara from Italian folklore, and many more. By making poor choices in your life that degrade your soul and the souls of those around you, anyone can easily and unintentionally become a black magician, it is simply one of the pitfalls of walking this oft crooked path of witchcraft.
Divisions of Witchcraft and Shamanism
When you break it down there are essentially two types: witches and witch doctors. What’s the difference? Well, go to rural Africa or India and proudly tell the locals you’re a witch and they will most likely chase you away with farming implements or actually kill you, but tell them you’re a witch doctor and they will treat you with a fearful respect and probably try to hire your services. Witchcraft is the practice of magic and ritual for personal benefit whereas a witch doctor’s magic and knowledge are for the benefit, protection, and healing of their entire community. For example, the Cunning Folk, Fairy Doctors, Spaewives, and Pellars of the UK were actually witch doctors not witches. Their magics were to prevent and protect from witchcraft, the evil eye, and harm caused by the good folk.
Now having said this it is also important to understand that many folk magic practitioners throughout the world were both witches and witch doctors and many practitioners hold the belief that, although you can be one or the other, it is best to be both and use both hands when practicing magic. For example, you cannot become a medical doctor by only learning about treating illnesses, you also have to learn all about disease or you will be unable to diagnose and therefore unable to treat patients. The same goes for a witch doctor, you must work with both your right and left hands in order for your practice to be balanced and complete — much like the oft misunderstood Bokor of Haitian Vodou. If you are a witch in the sense that you only practice magic for your personal benefit (which is not a bad thing at all as most witches are this type), then learning how to use both hands is less important. But if you wish to serve others with your magic it becomes necessary to acknowledge and work with both the dark and bright.
One of my favourite comparisons of the divisions belongs to author and mystic Dale Pendell who describes two types of witches: Sun and Moon sorcerers. The Sun sorcerer works on this earthly plane practicing healing, love, and fertility magics working with the lighter gods and benevolent nature spirits. The Moon sorcerer is usually a necromancer working with the underworld, night, and darkness and who’s practices include darker more mysterious magics and rituals involving the gods of the underworld and souls of the dead as well as malevolent spirits known to the Scots as the Unseelie Court. The Moon sorcerer’s magic is for personal gain and so can the Sun sorcerer’s be, but they also serve and heal others whereas the Moon sorcerer does not. It is obviously much more dangerous to be a Moon practitioner as for many that road leads to madness and darkness of the soul. But if one blends both they are protected by the light when entering the dark and can travel to the both the Otherworld and Underworld and back whole and untouched by madness. Just as it is dangerous to work only with the light and good it is equally as dangerous, if not more so, to only focus on the dark aspects of the Craft.
This warning is reflected in the Fairy Queen’s words to Thomas the Rhymer as she takes him with her on the journey to the Otherworld:
“O see ye not that narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.
And see not ye that broad broad road,
That lies across that lily leven ?
That is the path to wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.
And see not ye that bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night must gae.”
She is saying there are three roads to travel: the difficult road full of pain from hard lessons won which leads to purity and balance of the mind, spirit, and body; then the path of least resistance which is the easy road of pleasure, vice, and self-satisfaction and only leads to corruption of the spirit; and also the fair road of the woods and wilds which leads one to the Otherworld overlapping our own from which the practitioner can learn the mysteries of the wilds and of the universe.
Other Practitioner Divisions
Across Animistic cultures who had some form of shamanic practitioner, there were many divisions not just one general “shaman” or witch or the two types mentioned above. In many of these cultures there are also types of practitioner who they do not even classify as shamans and who are considered specialists. The following terms I use are just simple ones I’ve chosen because they are easily recognizable and understandable. Each individual culture has their own titles for these types of practitioner as well as more unique divisions, so I highly recommend looking into the divisions within the cultural framework you work within.
Divine King/Queen – Usually mystics and shaman-kings. Chiefs, kings, and leaders who had supernatural powers bestowed upon them by the land they are guardian of. The Divine or Sacred King is not a sacrifice, instead he/she is the heart of a people governing both the land and water’s fertility, happiness, and stability. This type receives their power from both their people and the local land spirits. Their duty is to use their powers and rituals given by their spirits and ancestors for the benefit of their entire community. After visiting the gods and spirits they return with codes of law, ethics, and societal rules. They are also expected to act as intermediary between the spirit realm and our realm for the happiness and harmony of those who dwell in both worlds. The Divine King/Queen is a healer of the land, but not of people as their responsibilities and powers are considered too great and important to expend on every person in their community. In this case it is the good of the many over the one or the few – Divine King/Queens are chosen, not born, but it is often a hereditary position.
Healers – Usually your average shaman, witch, witchdoctor, rootworker, or other folk magic and medicine practitioner. They heal the body, mind, and spirit not just treating symptoms like modern medical doctors. They were and still are highly respected and revered for their abilities. Healers are able to directly communicate with the spirits of plants, minerals, and animals and learn spirit medicine from them. Healers also belong to the community and there is no room for selfishness in their practice. The healer is akin to the Divine King also acting as intermediary between realms, but on a smaller more individual scale helping all their people who come to them for aid and healing. Most “shamans” are typically healers as it is the most common type. Healers can be taught and granted their powers, they do not have to be born with them.
Lore-Keeper – The holder of oral lore, myths, tales, fables, and history of a people and their beliefs and traditions. These are the bards, poets, musicians, storytellers, oral historians, oral genealogists, etc who are inspired by the divine and trained in their skills for many years, usually from a very young age into adulthood. Very few true to this type still exist as many were wiped out by conquering peoples and new religions. In some of the local Native tribes where I live this person is usually female and holds the title of Copperwoman. This practitioner is taught and not born. They can also be gifted with their abilities and access to ancestral lore.
Necromancer/Medium – A practitioner who specifically works with the spirits of the dead, the ancestors. This practitioner is a natural medium born with the innate gift to commune with and/or see the dead which cannot be taught. They also have the ability to be possessed by spirits so they may speak to those who cannot see or hear them. However, precautions must still be taken to protect the medium and they must be as good at banishing as they are at evoking. They are greatly feared and highly respected and usually only called upon in times of death or near-death to perform their sacred rituals and ceremonies to help souls properly cross over and complete their journey from our world to the next. They are also called upon to help with lost spirits and hauntings. In the Coast Salish tongue of British Columbia they are called Seuwa, in the UK they were known as Sin-Eaters, and were also known as Morthwyrtha or Völva in old Norse who were usually priestesses of the goddesses Freyja and Hel.
Ritualists – Practitioners who specialize in necessary rituals, especially when it comes to rites of passage and the cycles of the Earth’s seasons. This type has a natural knack for leading people in ritual, bringing others into trance states, and also bringing others into the presence of the spirits. Ritualists can be trained and do not have to be born with their gifts. Their abilities can also be gifts from their familiar spirits or their gods. I would say most modern Wiccans and Pagans who are in the priesthood fall under this category.
Seers – Someone born with the gift of second-sight, prophecy, and fore-telling. It was believed this type could not be trained, they had to be born with innate psychic abilities and in some cultures the “gift” was considered hereditary. Like the other types mentioned, Seers also serve their community with duties including foretelling the weather, war, natural disasters, the movements of animals for hunting and fishing, the actions of others, the reasons behind the actions of others, the truth of a dispute, where lost or stolen objects can be found, as well as foretelling the usual themes of love, money, children, and happiness which are the reasons so many people today flock to tarot readers and psychics. Seers are the clairvoyants, psychics, oracles, and soothsayers who are considered a class of their own usually considered unrelated to witchcraft and magic but with many practitioners having this ability on top of their other supernatural powers.
A true and very powerful shaman is all of the above and more.