Traditional Witchcraft Definitions

i‘ve seen many attempts at trying to define what Traditional Witchcraft is since it recently became popularized through the internet and book publishing, but most of those definitions seem to only include what it is not or are extremely ambiguous and misleading. The most common definitions tend to say that it is a) British Isles traditional witchcraft (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, England, etc) of the “anything but Wicca” variety; b) European-based traditional witchcraft (usually just Germanic, Celtic, Basque, Italian, and Greek witchcraft and folk magic), but not neoPaganism or reconstructionism, and is also of the “anything but Wicca variety”; c) a long-established tradition of witchcraft (tradition, however, being used in the modern sense stemming from its use for Wiccan traditions), usually referring to hereditary witchcraft  both fictional and non-fictional – the latter being more of the folk magic or hereditary psychic ability category; d) and lastly the more ambiguous anything but Wiccan, non-neoPagan, non-fluffy, non-religious, “craft” or “skill” of witchcraft usually practiced by solitaries.

The above explanations really don’t do it for me (as I prefer my definitions sans Wicca-bashing) and also do not explain well how the term is applied today compared to what the term actually represents when it comes to a path or tradition of magic and spirituality of today. I suggest, based on my own experience, research, and having been in the Traditional Witchcraft community before there were really any books or websites on the subject (at least with the words “traditional witchcraft in the titles”), that there are two separate definitions of Traditional Witchcraft just as when one looks up any word in the dictionary there is usually more than one possible meaning. Here are the two I have found to be used by practitioners and groups overall, or at least, how they intended to define it:

Definition 1 – “Traditional Witchcraft”: A modern witchcraft, folk magic, or spiritual practice based on the practices and beliefs of witchcraft in Europe and the colonies from the early modern period which ranged from the 1500s to the 1800s. The beliefs and practices were usually the pre-Christian remnants of more ancient Pagan or Animistic ones surviving to the early modern period through oral fairy & folk tales, ballads, songs, rhymes, superstitions, rural traditions, and various grimoires. However, there really were practicing witches, folk magicians, and magical groups during this time, but their practices and beliefs would have been tinged with Catholic-Christian overtones and mythology – even if thinly veneered on top of the Pagan ones. This does not mean there is a long-established tradition of an unbroken line of witches practicing within Paganism, but rather that just small fragments of what “might” have come before remained even if the witches and superstitious peasants themselves didn’t know it (which they likely did not). Cunning folk are a good example of the survival of such traditions even up to the mid-1900s in rural areas of the British Isles.

Definition 2 – “Modern Traditional Witchcraft”: Traditional Witchcraft as a modern accepted term used to refer to a specific witchcraft path and traditions within it which did not exist until the early 2000s. Before this time period there was no literature or groups claiming this label the way it is used today, but many influences for modern Traditional Witchcraft came beforehand in a period from the 1950s to the 1970s. These earlier influences most commonly included Robert Cochrane, Paul Huson, Joe Wilson, Robert Graves, and Victor Anderson. The later most common authors whose influence led to the creation of and modern definition of Traditional Witchcraft from a period of time from the 1980s to the 2000s includes E. J. Jones, Michael Howard and his periodical The Cauldron, Nigel Jackson, Nigel Pennick, Andrew Chumbley (post-2000) and Daniel Schulke (post-2000) — the later authors largely being influenced by the former. There are also more recent internet-savvy popular writers who now have their own cult followings due to the lore and hard work of the groundbreaking men who came before them. Most modern witches who claim they practice Traditional Witchcraft are mainly influenced by Chumbley’s Sabbatic Witchcraft, the writings of Robert Cochrane (also via Joe Wilson and E. J. Jones), and the practices and beliefs of Paul Huson in his work Mastering Witchcraft – whether they know or acknowledge it or not as the lore from these men may have come indirectly through another person or resource.

All other witchcraft and magical traditions not based in early modern witchcraft, modern traditional witchcraft, or British traditional witchcraft (Wicca) belong more to the realms of culture-based folk belief/religion, shamanism, and animism than they do to traditions of witchcraft.

For more information and resources see the article on Traditional Witchcraft

Author Sarah

Illustrator and weaver of words. Witch. Forest siren with talons, succubic tendencies, a love of otherworldly beauty, poisonous plants, wild places and dead things.

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  • Thanks for the definitions! I have been told that a Traditional Witch practices witchcraft but it isn’t a “religion” to them..its a way of life. Many say they don’t worship a Divine being. They do the craft of being a witch such as spells and rituals and working with the tools and things such as herbs, crystals, oils, incense etc. but then I found people who DO worship a Goddess/God but still call themselves Traditional! LOL..I guess it just goes to show that anything goes no matter what you call it.

    I do believe that some of this is because modern day witches want to disassociate themselves from Wicca because of so many people tagging it”fluffy bunny” stuff. They feel they are more “serious” than Wiccans. (shrug)

    I for one feel Wicca is a true, serious religion and form of witchcraft depending on the person who practices it just as not all christians, muslims, jews, etc are “serious” practictioners. Yes, some people dabble and for others its a lifestyle no matter what religion they follow.

    Love your blog..very informative!
    Blessings, Autumn

    • Pombagira says:

      see now, i have a belief that that concept of Witchcraft not being a Religion actually come out of the writings of Émile Durkheim, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89mile_Durkheim) he was one of the first academic theorists who complied was is essentially a list of what a religion has to have, a belief in a higher power, holy books and scripture umm a creed of some sort (and i am badly paraphrasing here) and community, or as he called it church. and that there at to be at least x mount from the list in order for there to be religion

      now the interesting bit comes about when he talks about Witchcraft and magic, and he dose use those words. he went on to say that one did not have to believe in witchcraft in order to use the charm that they had brought from the local cunningman, midwife or witch, and in fact witchcraft did not have a church (and by church he meant religious community)

      and as happens with many popular theorists, their work becomes a part of the innate framework of belief, so to speak to the public in general.. thus that whole witchcraft is not a religion, i reccon comes from Mr Durkheim with the puffy grey beard. and if you combine this with the aversion to the word religion many people have cause they equate it with the ebile politics behind any given world religion.. then hey presto.. commonly held belief that witchcraft in whatever from = Not religion..

      err… umm.. yeah.. *thoughts i has them*

      *beams*

  • That is hilarious. Not 10 minutes ago I thought, I haven’t heard from Sarah. Hey, I bet she’s been busy writing a post on witchcraft definitions. Well, what do you know. I love that.

    I not only agree with both distinctions but my practice *includes* both distinctions. I get really tired of folks trying to put me in a box or say that I have to choose, I’m either A or B. And thank you for the sans bashing.

    No matter what the backgrounds neither definition has anything to do with the power or skill or worth of the witch. They are both just starting points. That has been my experience. There’s just no way to get all tidy about this stuff.

    Still doing a lot of thinking on the term sorcery. What does that mean to me? Some practitioners seem to have a definition that equates with the term #1 witchcraft and yet it’s not what I find in most places. I know I need to widen my research but I’m hoping for more discussion on that. I’m really not on the same page with that one and not on purpose.

    I’m also wrestling with the idea that if one has their own reasons for not doing certain types of magic they get “oh you’re into the Christian good and bad model” or “gee you believe in free will” as if that’s a bad thing and makes you not worth talking to or lastly, you’re a bigot. Sorry, just a witch who came to some conclusions of her own. *sigh*

    Blessings,
    Cyn

  • Max says:

    Hey very nice post..

    Cassandra Latham explains something about what I have read above over the religious practice, and the everyday job side of witchcraft in a way I really liked…
    You can watch it here http://cornishwitchcraft.co.uk/videos-cassandra-latham.html

    Thanks for sharing all your thoughts Sarah!
    Max from Mexico!

  • Nikkie says:

    I’m not a wordsmith and sometimes have difficulty expressing myself there for I am grateful for what Cynthia has said. She mostly sums up what I’m thinking! LOL

    I also do not like to be placed in a box or asked to choose when clearly I am more than just one Tradition out of necessity!

    Thank you for the definitions Sarah. Food for thought. Of one thing I am certain though, my Path/Tradition is definitely not a Religion. Not in the sense I understand it or my community understands it. My Path happens to be my lifestyle, because it serves me well and it feels comfortable. It is what I know and who I am every day not only on special occasions. I also reserve the right to change my mind about the way I do things when I happen on new information. Thus my Way changes at times and therefor cannot be put in a box.

    Lots of thinking and debating with myself to do still though….

    and like Polly I’ll *ponder this* 😀

    Nikkie

  • Ruzu says:

    Nice post, I like to read the differences, because i´m new in this ^^
    I think is normal that people like to separate wicca with witchcraft, they are different, for me at least

  • Sarah says:

    For those who don’t see or practice witchcraft as a religion, I’ve found there are still spiritual elements to their craft like a belief in nature spirits, spirits of the dead, the existence of magic, and usually bits of animism as well. So I suppose it really depends on one’s definition of religion and whether it needs to include gods, doctrines, full theology, and sources etc. I’m more about the experiencial source myself and I do see witchcraft as both a craft and a spiritual path, so for me personally it’s really hard to say if it’s just one or the other – I’ll take both please!

    Thank you all for your comments and lovely discussion!
    Slainte,
    Sarah

    • DL Sanders says:

      Sarah… you rock!

      I’m with you here… it is both craft and path, and it is very hard to discern if there is any real distinction between them… hence, I believe it is where some people are coming from when they say that Wicca is a religion of Witchcraft, but I suppose that is a matter of personal experience for the individual; Discovering a spiritual truth and reality through the observance of their craft…

      “So I suppose it really depends on one’s definition of religion”, and there’s the rub – how does one express in clear and insightful way to some that religion is the path, but the destination… that it is not something you “do”, it’s something you become… or that it’s not what you believe, but the truth you are convicted to? Especially when they think of religions as being bodies of belief, dogma, and sacrament?

      “I’ll take both please!” … HAHAHA! Me too, and anything extra laying around!

      I.T.M.I.R,

  • I don’t know. If someone ask my religion I don’t say “Oh, I’m a witch”, I say “I’m pagan”. My godmother, for example, is christian thru and thru yet practices witchcraft.
    Witchcraft seems to be an auxiliary extension for a belief system. It is a way of parlaying with the supernatural realm, and it doesn’t really matter which realm you believe in. In fact, that is the only spiritual foot stone required to be a witch, a belief in the supernatural. At least in my experiences.

    • Ruzu says:

      mmm I think is correct to say that witchcraft is like a extension system, but I not agree with the part about doesn´t matter the realm you believe! Because withcraft is before christianity, and they does not have something in commun, just espiritual and faith, maybe, but i think they are very different, and you know how catholics talk about witchs and paganism, so I hate when people create a monster, like wicca-catholic, or cristianity magic XDD O_o sorry for my bad english, i´m from Central america ejeje.
      Its nothing against your mother, or something, but its wear to see this, is like I try the judaims, and them vodoo, I hope you can understand.

      blessings

  • Tunrida says:

    I must say that I, as a traditional Swedish witch, none of those definitions fully defines my tradition. But then again, prehaps its a cultural difference between British TW and Swedish (germanic) TW.

  • Linda says:

    Witchcraft means different things to different people that’s for sure. But I think that like language it is ever evolving and changing through the centuries and decades.

  • Wade MacMorrighan says:

    Hey, I LOVE the work or the artist you introduced this post with! He’s one of my favs., but…for some reason, I keep forgetting his name! LOL! There was even a movie made about him that I particularly enjoyed. Anyhoo…this particular painting has always been a fav. of mine.

  • Scott says:

    Your article is more informing than most books. Of course it is cross examining and comparative in nature.

    Thank you for your research.

  • Eric says:

    I agree with both of these definitions and I do relate to both of them in many ways. Though…I do seem to tailor more to the second definition as I am greatly inspired by the Sabbatic craft….even though I am not over the pond to enjoy their ways *sad face*

    But all in all I do not call myself a “traditional” witch anymore. I will usual respond with someone long the lines of “Servant of Fate and the Cunning Fire”. Which baffles most and makes them leave me alone haha!

    Thank you for these definitions 😀