What Makes One a Witch?

I hear this topic come up often on forums as well as in person between pagans, but everyone seems to have a differing opinion ranging from simply acting like a witch to being initiated into a tradition. For me, these simply don’t go in depth enough nor do they answer the question “can anyone be a witch?” The simple answer is no –anyone can practice magic, but not just anyone can be a witch. To become a witch you must be chosen by the gods or spirits and not try to force your way into it.

Definition of Witch

The word we use today stems from Old English which is Germanic in origin. Etymology is such a simple way to learn the origin and meaning of a word. In etymology the root “witch” stems from is “weik” which has five separate meanings that are all related to magic in some way. Wicca (originally pronounce “vitcha”) was the singular word for a male witch and wicce for female. Wiccaecrafte was the word once used for the practice of witchcraft and wiccian was used to mean “to cast a spell” or “to bewitch” as a verb. But the meaning of the root is found in all words in the Germanic and also Latin tongues associated with magic and religion as both along with other terms from Europe and Asia all originate from the Proto-Indo-European language group. The version of the root directly connected to witchcraft means sorcery, cunning, and wiles associated with pre-Christian religion and supernatural power. Weik‘s other meanings include to bend, change or alter (as in changing fate), twine and bind; to be able in battle, strong, brave, victorious; a clan or group of people; as well as an icon like a religious icon, statue, charm, or a poppet.

The direct meaning is very similar to the definition of a shaman – a person belonging to an animistic belief system of unusual cunning and knowledge with supernatural abilities and the power to act as intermediary between our realm and the realm of the spirits. For me a witch is a shaman, witch just happens to be the Germanic term for the individual whereas shaman originates from a tribe of Siberia. It doesn’t matter what the term is, it is the meaning that matters and shows the similarity.

Initiation

There is more than one type of initiation: 1) Initiation by a group is initiation into a standing family or witchcraft tradition and can also include induction into a coven where the initiate learns the set ways of the tradition; 2) Initiation by the gods or spirits which is a spiritual calling when one is approached by the gods or spirits to become a witch and the witch learns directly from the gods, spirits, or their familiars through a series of visionary mystical experiences.  Group initiation should support a member’s spiritual initiation by the spirits and gods on top of the transmission of tradition and if one is in a group it is the leader’s and fellow member’s responsibility to ensure your safety and continuation into the spirit initiation by offering support, advice, and guided rites.

The mistake most modern witches make is in thinking just by reading a book or two on witchcraft and/or getting initiated into a tradition or coven that they should automatically have the abilities to see and commune with spirits and gods, to walk between worlds, and to have supernatural powers. When none of this happens to them they start thinking it is all make believe and those who do claim to have the experiences are lying and frauds. This is one of the major reasons those new to witchcraft and neoPagan paths leave them after a short time in bitterness or disillusion. Modern Pagans have forgotten how to become and be witches.

Without an experiential dimension any set of magical beliefs, however sophisticated, becomes little different from a scientific procedure – a manufactured means through which to manipulate nature and the objects within it.”

~ Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits

Modern witches no longer actually believe in the Otherworld, the Gods, or the existence of spirits and those who truly want to believe have such a strong fear of them being real that it prevents them from ever interacting and communing with them let alone ever advancing in their craft ability. Today many have boiled witchcraft down to psychology and magical scientific procedure – this is not true magic nor is it witchcraft.

To become a witch takes much work and dedication; there is practice, practice, and more practice required, hard rites of dedication and initiation required, oaths required, and duties and services as responsibilities of the rites and oaths required. Many do not wish to admit the power doesn’t come from them alone when truly one’s own personal power is just a small portion of the witch’s overall power. Rather, the power comes from the gods and spirits the witch works with and also from the spirits and essence of the plants and materials used in magical, ritual, and healing. Someone who works with herbs and memorizes their magical properties is just an amateur ethnobotanist, but someone who communes with the spirits of the same plants and learns of their magical and medicinal properties directly from the plants is a witch or shaman.

There are steps to becoming a witch, it doesn’t nor can it happen overnight. Initiation is just the beginning of a process that can last for 10 to 20 years before the initiate achieves full power, understanding, as well as control of and use of their abilities. One must always remember that knowledge is never free, there is always a price to be paid. The price isn’t an evil contract with a demon or devil but oaths and services promised in return for the power and knowledge of a witch. These vary from person to person, for example, one witch may be asked to make an oath of service to teach a particular area of lore like plant lore in return whereas another may have to promise to heal others with their power and become a public servant like the shamans and cunning folk of old.

The initiation and learning of the witch usually occurs in stages that may or not be in this order, but most often tend to be:

  1. Appearance or interference of gods and/or spirits
  2. Dedication to one’s gods or spirits
  3. Insistence of spirits or gods to initiate and make an oath
  4. Illness or bad luck upon refusal or delay
  5. Making an oath or promise of service
  6. Acquiring or receiving one’s familiar spirits
  7. Acquiring supernatural abilities and/or mystical knowledge
  8. Continued visionary and mystical experiences
  9. Growth and strength of abilities and experiences the more one practices and keeps their promises.

So in conclusion – no visionary experiences equals no witch. Just because one can’t be a witch nor have a witch’s abilities doesn’t mean they can’t have a spiritual magical practice and a relationship with gods and spirits – it simply means one is a layPagan –someone without supernatural ability who follows a Pagan-based spirituality and may practice some folk magic and simple rituals, usually personal and seasonal in nature.

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  1. Jongiorgi Enos says:

    This was a good article.

    I have struggled very much with your passage about ‘scientific’ witchcraft: “Modern witches no longer actually believe in the Otherworld, the Gods, or the existence of spirits and those who truly want to believe have such a strong fear of them being real that it prevents them from ever interacting and communing with them let alone ever advancing in their craft ability. Today many have boiled witchcraft down to psychology and magical scientific procedure…”

    I have often found myself in this position, having had visionary experiences that I hesitated to take at face value, but also being of a scientific bent. In truth, the reductionist and the mystic war in me. You will be happy to know, however, when I have expressed a theory of magic which was “boiled down to psychology and scientific procedure” I have tended to find resistance. There is a strong core of ‘true belief’ out there, especially among trad crafters, that is alive and well.

    Also, I have discovered, that when one works ‘as if’ the gods and spirits are real, the workings go better, which either strengthens the psychological argument… or kills it! As I progress along the path, and have increasingly potent mystical and initiatory experiences (including full enthotic possession and powerful plant spirit communication), as well as going deeper into the study of these things, my scientific/psychological paradigm begins to crumble. I more and more find actuality within the forces we claim to ‘make use of’ and when I call upon them, things happen.

    You are right that your list of 9 does not happen necessarily in a particular order, and in fact, the witch keeps going back and forth up and down that list it seems, for quite a while at the beginning of this long process, it seems, before finally settling into a working method.

    It seems as if the gods are forgiving and patient. They want to be worked with, recognized, appreciated, so they keep giving us chances, even when after multiple manifest experiences, we slip back into Jungian doubt.

    A sense of being called to it is very much a part of it as well. And once called, things not going well if you turn your back on this path. That I have found to be true. There is no turning back.

    Now… how to rid myself of my reductionist mindset…

    • Sarah says:

      Beautiful and eloquent response! Thank you for taking the time to read my entry and leave such a thoughtful comment ;)

      Sometimes one needs to keep the inner skeptic alongside practicing witchcraft as a self-check to make sure we don’t become delusional or even worse, gullible. Don’t give it up completely but learn how to let it go where it matters. I think you are already there!

  2. While I have found that indeed, once called one can not turn back, it has not followed that bad luck happens until I return to the craft.

    In my case, I turned away in order to get sober. So much of the literature in the program I follow was so outside my witch paradigm that I decided to start from scratch as it were and look at as many different spiritual paths as I could. Eventually I made it back to where I had started, witchcraft. Those testing discovering years were pretty easy compared to what I’ve experienced since my return.

    In fact, my “luck” hasn’t been that great since I came back. Assuming of course that one means extremely challenging events that test my mettle to equate with “Bad Luck” and that Good Luck = enjoyable. ;-)

    I burned my dedication into my skin many years in and many years ago and there is no turning back but there can be a turning off for a time to look into other forms and paths which bring richness once back on the main path, in this case witchcraft.

    As much as I prefer a softer easier graded road, that is not my fate and it is not how I learn my most treasured lessons.

    Thank goodness my main deity carries a torch with Her into the deepest and darkest shadows…

    Blessings
    Cyn

    • Sarah says:

      Hehehe, you’ve already dedicated, initiated, and made your oaths no doubt. The unexplained illness and bad luck (as in life spirals out of control and you lose everything, not you locked your keys in the car) are usually before the above steps. You and I work with deities of obstacles and challenges – they love to throw things in our way just to see what we do and we gain strength by overcoming them and grow weaker by taking the easy route and avoiding them – not that we’d do that… anymore ;)

      The gods and spirits once a part of you do seem to be very forgiving when life gets crazy and the operative part of witchcraft has to get pushed to the side for a while. For me there’s usually gentle and then not so gentle nudges to come back to it though, lol.

  3. You are so, so right! What an amazing post.

  4. M. says:

    Maybe out of term, misplaced … but when I was reading this entry I was wondering why so many have the need to be a witch in the first place. Is it a true calling? Is it fashion? Is it confusion? A (desperate) search to belong? …
    Yes, I know my blog was originally called Crafty WITCH, but that was more a gimmick rather than anything else. I have changed this since because it would imply something that I am not and brings with it expectations that I do not want, nor can fulfil. Hence why I wrote on the side:
    Not Witch …
    Not Wicca …
    Not anything …
    Just go with the flow …
    Walk my own path …
    Don’t need a label …
    Go where the wind takes me …
    Mixing it up …
    Stirring it …
    My way …
    My path
    I do turn to witches for advice (hint, hint), but more to understand or find a better approach to my own path whichever way that is. I think that the term witch is used far too loosely nowadays and watered down to the point that many confuse themselves with being a witch when they are simply NOT. BUT, is that really such a bad thing? Why is it so important to have that title? I am just happy to BE. Oh! I think I have to turn this into an entry on my blog.

    • I have this theory that started when I was playing in the Society for Creative Anachronism (the SCA). There is a lot of cross-over between the two groups, SCA and Pagans and I can’t help but think that the common factor is Fantasy. I think half the folks who call themselves witches are very drawn to the fiction that comes with it.

      I have no doubts about my own witchiness and why I’m here doing what I’m doing but even I am somewhat drawn to the glamour of The Witch. Even as a child I wanted the witches cottage, the funny clothes, the animals, and the fae.

      I left the SCA because I couldn’t handle the fact that the honor and courtesy was a big part of the fantasy and not the reality and I’ve left most pagan things for that same reason. Now I tend to go to one to see a very specific person, to go shopping for things I can’t get anywhere else and from the person who made them, or for, in my local case, the land. I just can’t handle the fantasy in others.

      YMMV,
      Cyn

      • Ooops forgot the important part. There were a lot of folks in the SCA who, for one reason or the other, life had passed by. They either were sorely lacking in social graces and had become pariahs in the “real world” or were shy. Mostly the former. But in the SCA they were Lord and Lady and in some cases, Baroness etc… They got to wear shiny hats and people would bow to them. Some of them were called King and couldn’t remember that come Monday they’d be pumping gas just like the rest of us.

        I think that sometimes being called Witch or what have you brings with it that same sense of awe or otherness that brings esteem to folks who have very little of it. They like to be thought different and special and apart from the maddening crowd. I don’t blame them and hopefully their path and title will bring them what they need and wish for.

        I’m reminded of a quote in a Cadfael book (I am a Cadfaelaholic) when someone accuses one of the monks of murder and then says he’s sorry. Cadfael says:

        “We are none of us holy because we say we are.”

        Cyn

      • M. says:

        I do believe that a lot of us are drawn to this path because of the romantic notions attached to it. But, it takes a close look and honesty with yourself to see where it stays in the realm romanticism or more wanna-be’s and the transition to hard work, learning and experiencing. It does not have the same ring if you are “just” a pagan, no it has to be a witch. Hihihihi, I still want the witchy cottage now, the funny clothes, the animals and the fae well into my adulthood, but at least I own up to the fact that I will never be a witch. Does this matter to me? No, again, I just want to BE whatever path I walk in a less hard work manner that is required for certain paths. It simply takes more than just celebrating the sabbats and do some rituals. Well, each to what they are happy with, but it must be frustrating for the real witches to see this watered down version of : “Do a quick course to get certified in witchcraft” approach.

  5. M. says:

    There are two awards at the bottom of this entry for you :o).
    http://craftywitchshop.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/another-great-article-by/

    All the best
    Wandering Soul (aka Crafty Witch)

    • Sarah says:

      I think you’ve just unintentionally described the difference between a witch and a pagan. Not every pagan wants or needs to be a witch/shaman. For example one of my friends who is a witch and priest was talking down about another friend of ours who is not and has no aspirations to be – I told him that not everyone who is a pagan has the ultimate goal of joining the priesthood and practicing operative magic and that the person he was talking down about was deeply spiritual in their own way. My friend said “I never thought about it like that before…” I think the main driving force behind those who want to be witches is the modern need to be special and different whereas in the past it was more a drive to be the status quo and not ruffle any feathers. I’ve met many, many people who think just because they are weird, they are witches – nope, they’re just crazies…

      I use the word witch here because it is the word us Pagans most easily understand. When I personally use the word I also mean shaman. If one is pure of heart and intent and humble in seeking power – they may be rewarded with it.

      And thank you so much for the awards, you made me all warm and fuzzy! :D

  6. “Modern witches no longer actually believe in the Otherworld, the Gods, or the existence of spirits and those who truly want to believe have such a strong fear of them being real that it prevents them from ever interacting and communing with them let alone ever advancing in their craft ability. Today many have boiled witchcraft down to psychology and magical scientific procedure…”

    Amen to that, Sister. Amen to that.

    This is a most timely post (as I’m sure you know). And while I’m hardly an authority on anything at this point, I do think that the psychological mindset that a lot of people use when doing magic does a great deal of harm to them. If one treated gravity as a psychological projection of the desire for intimacy with Earth, then started jumping off of progressively higher platforms to prove it, eventually one would learn gravity is a lot bigger than just a state of mind, lol. Magic is the same way, for me. It absolutely requires a spiritual side, an acknowledgment that there are beings other than humans with the ability to interact with us, help us, harm us, or just remind us that we’re not alone. I know that Otherworld is real, because I’ve met beings from it, and they have frightened the bejezus out of me or left me in awe.

    All that being said, your post definitely gives me a lot to think about, particularly with regard to where each of us fit in with this schema. Hopefully, the spirits will continue to guide me to my proper place, and I’ll be smart enough to listen when they speak, lol.

    Thanks for another marvelous post!

    -Cory

  7. Anthony says:

    wow…many thought provoking comments to a timely artical indeed. I have met several witches recently..and none of them call themselves anything, least of all witches. I could simply see the awareness and connection that is the seed of all magick. awareness is a big part. for this reason, i dont think traditional witchcraft itself can be taught..one can teach only the mindset that allows the luminous spirits of all to to commune with the one whoes mind is open.

  8. Melissa says:

    Thank you again for such a wonderful post. I agree with you that the gods and spirits are more than psychological ideas. They have personalities and can share information that I simply don’t have within me. I learn things in visions and then am able to confirm what I learn in books later. That certainly doesn’t come from within my psyche.

    I often feel like I’m wandering alone, feeling a little crazy for having visions, and spirit guides. There’s lots of lay pagans where I come from, and very few skilled practitioners. When I read your list I was surprised to find that I was more than half way through the items! It’s a little scary realizing that you’re the one that is the skilled practitioner in town. People ask me for advice and healing and I give it. It’s a heavy responsibility. Still, it’s less scary when I see that there are other people doing what I’m doing. Thanks for the posts.

  9. trothwy says:

    “The mistake most modern witches make is in thinking just by reading a book or two on witchcraft and/or getting initiated into a tradition or coven that they should automatically have the abilities to see and commune with spirits and gods, to walk between worlds, and to have supernatural powers.”

    These are my favorite lines out of an article full of good ones. Initiation is the jumping off point, not an end point. Actually, the fun part is that there is no end point.

    Kudos on another excellent article, Sarah.

  10. H. Parker says:

    I think there’s good reason to go easy on the psychologizers. Reality is really scary, and not everybody is called to face it and voyage ever farther, because they just aren’t ready.

    The psychological model is close, just not complete. In dreams and in Jungian active imagination people meet autonomous entities, etc. Not every dream is a “big dream”, not every “person” encountered is Other. But there’s no limit to how far, using trance etc, you can take active imagination, and I think it’s part of an unbroken spectrum with the shamanic Otherworlds and even probably death at the farthest other side of this spectrum. Odds are the most materialistic person see spirits sometimes, just like everybody has at least one or two “big dreams” in their lives.

    “As within, so without,” (or is that backwards–doesn’t matter). So another way of saying the same thing is that the “external” world is animistic, polytheistic, choose your nomenclature, and so is the “internal” world: peopled with autonomous things, etc. The most experienced travellers are sometimes fooled by their imaginations I have to believe (or else all visionaries would agree and different religions would fight), and psychologizers are fooled the opposite way. Internal, external, I don’t believe there’s anywhere any clear line of division. There’s a division, but pretending you can find it is just pretend.

    If we were impermeable, there could never be any spirit communication, after all. Psychologizers are mistaken, but “humankind cannot take very much reality” as the poet said. Who wants to believe the Unknown might show up any minute, or rather it’s already here (besides us, I suppose)? Who wants to see themselves as ill-defined? That however makes our psyches unbounded, infinite, because of the lack of clear division, the oversimplification called “subject and object.” Our psyches (soul, well of images and art and Muses) are infringed on by and touch “Reality” always. Giving up the illusion of a universe of monads (like one integrated “me”) is scary.

    Just one simplistic, personal way I make sense of things when it all gets too intense and I need sense and suchlike toy models of the world.

    • Sarah says:

      I agree that human kind can only take so much of the (super)natural, but witches should be able to handle it in order to be witches in the first place in my honest opinion.

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