Divisions of Witchcraft

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.

Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • Ruzu says:

    Hello!! Thanks for all this information ^^ i enjoy your blog.
    I did not know about some divisions, so this is perfect for me.

  • ladylavona says:

    Dave Pendell!!! I just read “Pharmako/Poeia Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft” while on blog hiatus! I can’t wait to get the other two of that series…

    love & magick!

  • ladylavona says:

    ooops, I meant “Dale” not Dave!

    Also, I read an interesting article called “Medicine: The Psychology of Witches” in TIME. It’s about the distinctive psychiatric category of women labeled “hag or witch types” … “loathsome women”


    • Sarah says:

      Thanks for the article Lavona! I’ve definitely met that type and they can be scary! The only way to escape is to show them they cannot control or dominate you!

  • What a wonderful blog, Sarah! And I love the inclusion of the THomas the Rhymer material, especially. It reminds me of an essay I once read from RJ Stewart regarding the rivers of tradition. The divisions you mention are soooooooo interesting! Especially because I’m in the middle of reading American Shamans by Jack Montgomery, which also discusses some of those divisions, too.

    On the point of the Divine Monarch, though, I wonder if you’ve ever heard of the tradition of a Monarch’s touch being able to heal those near death? I’m not sure of the oldest precedents in lore, but I know that Tolkien used the idea in his books. Lol, I know, I know, that adds tons of credibility to my point, but I think the idea is older.

    Anyway, I love love love this post (as I usually do your great posts)! Thank you so much for this great work!

    • Sarah says:

      Aw thankie Cory. I have heard of that and that the shaman/priest kings had many powers and blessings they could bestow upon those they chose, but they were supposed to be very selective in how they used it as to heal others was thought to expend their powers and their community would rather have the powers used on bigger matters. I’m sure if the king’s son was dying he’d make an exception however or for people who were needed in the community. Their touch was supposed to bestow blessings as well, they could make a barren woman fertile, an unlucky person lucky, and so on. A bit like being Jesus, hehehe…

      I haven’t heard of that title, how is it?


  • Todd says:

    Very good Sarah, I really enjoyed reading this. It is very informative. So then, I take it that this division is the same one that Carlos Ginsburg speaks of in “Night Battles”. Correct?

  • Sarah says:

    Thanks Todd! I haven’t read Night Battles so I couldn’t tell you! Most of my influences for this article are from shamanism texts and experience to be honest!

  • Nix says:

    Another great post, Sarah. Thank you for such an interesting article.

  • Mugami says:

    The Idea of Balance reminds me of The Crook & Flail of Egypt and some old legend of a double edged sword who blade heals or harms, but only in equal measure. I can’t remember if it’s european or chinese/japanese.

    I noticed you went I little light on Necromancers, though I’d like to think it’s because you understand where our duties are supposed to lie. 😉

    “Sineaters”, I remember them. The church went a long way to murder them from history. I’m always astounded at how novel your intelligence is. Reading your thoughts, their inherent elegance and grace, are always a vigor to me.

    Thank you, eternally.

  • Sarah says:

    Coincidence? Hehehe, last night I dreamed someone was trying to get me to eat food off of a corpse…

    Exactly! Balance is not a new idea, it’s found in almost every ancient culture. I plan to write an article about it specifically including it’s place in gender, social structure, as well as magic and religion.

    The Necromancer description started off much shorter but I had to elaborate as I had people emailing thinking they were Necromancers, when really they just cared deeply about how the dead were treated by the living. I think it can be dangerous to write about their actual practices as those without the ability, not believing you have to be born with it, will try anyway and end up hurting themselves, their families, or worse. Witchcraft is dangerous! I think this is plain to see through the amount of mental illness that runs rampant within the modern witchcraft communities.


  • Mugami says:

    It’s a little off topic but, am I supposed to take away the sins of the Dead and near dead or is that more a reference to the helping of the Dead cross over and sendings? I’ve heard Sineater are a reference to a near mythic sect of christians who absolved the sins of others by the words of The gospel of Thomas. Saint Longinus was a sineater. I find it amusing his celebration day is the ide of March. There was a sect who followed him and were called Sineaters as well. He reported lived for 335 years, then vanished from history. Blessed/cursed to see the world move on until The End of Days and all, undying and eternally youthful.

    The whole reason I ask is mostly I find it interesting you choose that word. I popped into my head a few days ago after I visited a ghost in the UK from WWII. Raphael told me, “Find her,” as a test of my fortitude in following this endeavour. Anyway, if any word would catch my attention it was that one, Sineater.

    I was wondering if it was purely coincidental or a deus ex machina of some sort?

  • Sarah says:

    This winter I read the works of Ross Heaven who apprenticed with a Welsh Sineater in his youth. His two books “Confessions of the Last Sin Eater” and “Plant Spirit Wisdom” show that the role and position of Sineaters existed long before Christianity came to the Isles. I think you will find the first title of particular interest due to your abilities. The Morthwyrtha and Seuwa were basically the Norse and Coast Salish versions of the Sineater but with more emphasis placed on communication with the dead, sacred funerary rituals, and sometimes the ability to travel to the underworld.

    Sineaters also ate the sins of the living too though and were essentially fairy doctors or folk medicine practitioners. What we call sin today they thought of as the evil eye (sin is a relatively new word). Excluded from society much as the Bokor of Haitian Vodou, they worked with both the light and dark aspects of magic and healing – life and death.

  • Saturn Darkhope says:

    Hey, lovely lady,

    Thank you for laying that out. I’m sure it’s no surprise that I agree on the balance aspect. :) I just had to say that your introduction missed my favourite response to the “good witch or bad wtich?” question: “ohhh, I’m very, very good at what I do.” Sometimes with a sinister undertone for fun. I like removing the assumption of good vs evil from the question and answer as if it was asked from a completely different perspective.

  • Sarah says:

    Hehehe, I’ve never heard that response before! That is awesome!

  • strixchick says:

    Not sure if it was already mentioned (I ctrl+f’d it, but nothing came up), but the picture you use to open the article is of the Sirin and Alkonost, Russian birds of prophecy, or as the picture is titled, “Birds of Joy and Sorrow.” I absolutely love Russian mythology, so this perked my day up. 😀

  • Sarah says:

    I love Russian mythology and folklore as well – couldn’t resist using this image! I especially love the imagery of birds as messengers of the gods.


  • Can’t the spirits also gift someone with the second sight?

    Awesome post! Thank you, Sarah.

    • It’s more complex than that. The two sights and other supernatural abilities are directly connected to the land spirits and ancestral spirits, but usually requires generations of a people living in the same spot and so requesting such a gift from a spirit may be met with refusal or inability. There are sneaky methods to temporarily gain the second sight however – mainly by standing at threshold places and “seeing” with intention.