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.
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:
- Appearance or interference of gods and/or spirits
- Dedication to one’s gods or spirits
- Insistence of spirits or gods to initiate and make an oath
- Illness or bad luck upon refusal or delay
- Making an oath or promise of service
- Acquiring or receiving one’s familiar spirits
- Acquiring supernatural abilities and/or mystical knowledge
- Continued visionary and mystical experiences
- 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.