Maybe you've read all of the Harry Potter books and watched every episode of Charmed or Bewitched, so you think you know what witches are all about. Modern witches don't exactly fit most of the TV and movie characters you've seen, however.
Are they good? Are they evil? Do they cast spells to cause bad things to happen?
The true definition of a witch, as well as the history of witches in general, is widely debated. Many texts describe witchcraft as pacts with the Devil in exchange for powers to do evil and harm others. While this may have some truth in certain sects, for most modern-day witches it is quite far from their actual beliefs and practices.
In this article, we'll delve into the mysterious and hidden world of the modern witch, muddle through some of the witch's disputed history, find out why Halloween is a big night for them and take a peek into some of their rituals.
Belief in magic and witchcraft has been around since the beginning of time. Early man paid tribute to the gods and goddesses that ruled his world and brought healthy crops and mild winters. The idea of magic came about when things weren't so good: It grew from the chaos that accompanied bad weather, sickness and shortages of food. When times were bad, shamans, medicine people, witches and other types of sorcerers would cast spells and perform rituals to harness the power of the gods. Harnessing this power had mixed results: Witches, who were primarily women, were originally seen as wise healers who could both nurture and destroy; this belief in their power, however, eventually led to fear, and this often forced witches to live as outcasts. In the next section, we'll learn about the persecution of witches.
Once Christianity took hold in the late Middle Ages, the witches who performed magic were seen as devil worshippers who held Black Masses, hexed people and flew around on brooms. This was also the time of the Reformation, which began as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church but resulted in the creation of Protestant churches. Although it occurred primarily in the 16th century, it had its roots in the 14th century -- about the time when the witch hunt craze started.
Witch hunts in Europe and in the European colonies began around the 1450s and lasted until the 1750s. Because there were so many epidemics (like the Black Plague) and natural disasters, outbreaks of mass hysteria lead to pinpointing witches and witchcraft as the culprits.
During the various witch trials, prosecutors often used extreme torture to extract "confessions" from presumed witches. Innumerable witches were executed by public hanging or burning.
The Salem Witch Trials
In 1692, in Salem, Mass., there was an outbreak of witch hunts and witch trials that all started with some strange behavior from two young girls. The girls were having convulsions and screaming that they were being pinched or bitten. The doctor who examined them eventually decided they were under some sort of spell or bewitchment. One by one, women in the town of Salem and even in surrounding areas began being accused of witchcraft.
The servant of one of the girls' families was West Indian and admitted in court to dealings with the devil, flying on "sticks," and being upset because "they" made her hurt those girls. This testimony clinched the hysteria that was already building. Salem residents were then certain that the devil was alive and very active in their land -- and who knew what would happen next.
Over a period of nine months, more than 100 people were imprisoned for being witches, and 20 were executed. Finally, a new court was constituted to replace the General Court, which had been holding the trials. This court, the Superior Court of Judicature, reversed the policy of the previous court. From this point on, only three more people were found guilty of witchcraft, and those three were later pardoned.
Theories today are varied regarding what was actually wrong with the two young girls who started it all. Some say they were good actresses, and once they had started it and saw all of the attention they were getting, they had to keep it up. Another theory is that they actually had clinical hysteria, which would explain the convulsions.
Witchcraft is a pagan religion. Pagan religions worship multiple deities rather than a single god. Paganism is one of the oldest religions and includes all religions that are not Christian, Muslim or Jewish, meaning Paganism includes the Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and American Indian religions as well as all other nature-oriented religions. According to the 1998 Cambridge Fact Finder, Paganism accounts for 50 percent of all religions.
The word "Pagan" actually stems from the Latin Pagini or Paganus, words meaning "hearth" or "home dweller" or, more simply, "country person" -- those labeled as Pagans were considered inferior to those living in cities. It didn't, however, mean those people were "bad." It wasn't until the 1450s that fear of witchcraft became more prevalent, and people began associating witchcraft and paganism with devil worship, evil hexes and spells.
Types of Witchcraft
There are many types of witchcraft, many of which overlap and all of which can be defined in different ways by different people, but here are some rough guidelines for their designations:
- African witchcraft: There are many types of witchcraft in Africa. The Azande of central Africa believe that witchcraft causes all types of misfortune. The "gift" of witchcraft, known as mangu, is passed from parent to child. Those possessing mangu aren't even aware of it and perform magick unconsciously while they sleep.
- Appalachian folk magic: Those who practice witchcraft in the Appalachian mountains see good and evil as two distinct forces that are led by the Christian God and Devil, respectively. They believe there are certain conditions that their magick cannot cure. They also believe that witches are blessed with paranormal powers and can perform powerful magick that can be used for either good or evil purposes. They look to nature for omens and portents of the future.
- Green witchcraft: A Green witch is very similar to a Kitchen/Cottage witch (see below) with the exception that the Green witch practices in the fields and forest in order to be closer to the Divine spirit. The Green witch makes his or her own tools from accessible materials from outdoors.
- Hedge witchcraft: A Hedge witch is not part of a group or coven. This witch practices magick alone and works more with the green arts, herbal cures and spells. In the early days, Hedge witches were local wise men or women who cured illnesses and gave advice. They can be of any religion and are considered traditional witches (see below).
- Hereditary witchcraft: Hereditary witches believe in "gifts" of the craft that are with a witch from birth, having been passed from generations before.
- Kitchen/Cottage witchcraft: A Kitchen witch, or Cottage witch, practices magick around the hearth and home. The home is a sacred place, and the use of herbs is used often to bring protection, prosperity and healing. Kitchen witches often follow more than one path of witchcraft.
- Pennsylvania Dutch hexcraft or "Pow-wow": When the Germans first arrived in Pennsylvania, Native Americans were there, so the term "pow-wow" to describe this practice may come from observations of Indian gatherings. Pow-wowing includes charms and incantations dating back to the Middle Ages, as well as elements borrowed from the Jewish Kabbalah and Christian Bible. Pow-wowing focuses on healing illnesses, protecting livestock, finding love or casting or removing hexes. Pow-wowers consider themselves to be Christians endowed with supernatural powers.
- Traditional witchcraft: Traditional witchcraft often follows science, history and the arts as its foundation. While sharing the same respect for nature as the Wiccan witch (see below), traditional witches do not worship nature nor the god or goddess of Wicca. They contact spirits that are part of an unseen spirit world during rituals. Magick is more practical than ceremonial and focuses greatly on herbs and potions. This sect of witchcraft also has no law of harming none, but does believe in responsibility and honor. Hexes and curses, therefore, can be used in self-defense or for other types of protection.
- Wicca: Wicca is one of the modern Pagan religions that worships the Earth and nature, and it is only about 60 years old. It was created in the 1940s and '50s by Gerald Gardner. Gardner defined witchcraft as a positive and life-affirming religion that includes divination, herblore, magic and psychic abilities. Wiccans take an oath to do no harm with their magick.
For a list of even more types of witchcraft, visit Neopagan.net: Classifying Witchcrafts.
Most of those who call themselves witches today belong to the Wiccan religion, so we'll focus on Wicca for the duration of this article.
Wicca, a modern Pagan religion that worships the Earth and nature, was established in the 1940s and '50s by Gerald Gardner. Gardner defined witchcraft as a positive and life-affirming religion. The central Wiccan theme is, "if it does no harm, do your own will." Gardner also ascribed to this definition many witchcraft practices and skills that had existed for centuries and been part of many different religions and cultures. These practices included such things as divination (foreknowledge), herblore, magic and psychic abilities. Modern witchcraft in Britain, Europe, North America and Australia all evolved based on the Gardnerian definition and belief system.
Wicca has no belief in a Devil and does not subscribe to the Christian idea of Hell, so the idea that modern witches worship the devil is nonsense. There are many conflicting definitions of "Wicca" and "witch," and even modern-day witches don't all agree on how to define themselves and their religion. Most, however, call themselves witches and their religion Wicca. There are actually several Wiccan traditions now that have varying beliefs, all loosely based on the Gardnerian ideals. Most of what we cover in this article is based on the Gardnerian tradition.
The Wiccan belief is that when witches become one with the deities through rituals, they become in tune with the overall life force or cosmic energy. This allows the witch to somewhat control that energy (meaning the energy from themselves and their environment) and direct it for "personal" change through magick.
The theory follows the scientific concept that all matter vibrates with its own energy. The speed of that vibration is dictated by the movement of the molecules that make up the object. Whether the object is solid or not is also determined by the movement of the molecules. According to the book "Spellworks for Covens," energy from the witch's body also has a vibration -- both a physical rate of vibration and a spiritual rate of vibration. During power-raising rituals, witches believe that the molecules from both their physical and spiritual sides meld together to increase their overall energy and create a pathway for energy to flow through them. In order not to deplete their own personal energy stores, they can also pull energy from the Earth and sky.
Both men and women can be witches. Men are also called witches, not warlocks. The word warlock actually means "oath breaker" and dates back to the witch hunts: It was used to refer to those who betrayed other witches, and in the witching world it still has a bad connotation.
A person does not need a "gift" in order be a Wiccan witch, only training. The Wiccan Rede is the witch's law and code of ethics. It says (in part):
Bide the Wiccan Law ye must,
In perfect love and perfect trust.
These eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill,
An ye harm none do as ye will.
And ever mind the Rule of Three,
What ye send out comes back to thee.
Follow this with mind and heart,
And merry ye meet and merry ye part.
See Witches' Voice: The Wiccan Rede to read the full text.
What this means is that witches should not perform magick that would harm another person. And if they do, it will come back to them threefold. So, if a witch hexes someone, he or she will experience misfortune that is three times worse. This is a very important part of the Wiccan belief. The magick they perform is supposed to be for personal change only.
Learning the Craft
Witches can either practice their craft in groups, called covens, or by themselves as solitaries. New members are welcomed into covens with a formal initiation ceremony. In the Gardnerian tradition, there are three phases of learning, each of which lasts a year and a day. Covens generally have their own rules, procedures and names for these phases, but they tend to fall into the following categories:
- teacher/high priest(ess)
Once a new member has completed all phases, he or she is a full-fledged witch with the power to perform and participate in formal rituals.
In the next section, we will explain the basics of the Wiccan rituals. But before we get into that, let's take a look at some of the different tools of the witch's trade.
A knife isn't one of the traditional witch's props you can get at the costume shop, but the athame is an important part of many rituals. The athame is a double-edged knife with a blade about 6 inches long. It is not terribly sharp -- it is used to mark the edges of the circle and to stir the salt and water that are used to consecrate (or make sacred) the circle. It is also used sometimes to carve symbols or words into candles. The athame's owner marks either the handle or the blade with his or her witchcraft name and stores it in a white container or cloth. The athame is also used in the Great Rite ritual (more on the Great Rite later) as a phallic symbol, representing one half of the union of the God and Goddess from which new life comes.
Some witches use a bell during rituals, but there is no official or required use of one. Some examples of when a bell might be rung is when the circle is opened or closed, to invoke the God or Goddess or simply to signify when certain phases of the ritual are ending or beginning.
Witches don't actually fly on brooms, although many do have them. They're used to purify an area of lingering energies (similar to the use of sage below) before "casting a circle." Circles are cast before any ritual.
The boline is another knife used in Wiccan rites. In contrast to the athame, the boline is very sharp and is usually made of copper. Its sole use is to cut herbs.
Book of Shadows
The Book of Shadows is essentially the witch's guidebook. It contains all of a particular witch's (or coven's) ritual and spell information. It is the written record of everything the witches in that coven need to know, such as descriptions and explanations of all of the sabbats (more on sabbats later).
When a circle is cast for a ritual, there are four quadrants representing north, south, east and west. Quarter candles of specific colors are used: north is green (earth), south is red (fire), east is yellow (air) and west is blue (water). The candles are placed at the perimeter of the circle. There are also three candles used on the altar -- the color of these candles represents the ritual being performed.
The cauldron is a necessary part of witches' paraphernalia. While many years ago, cauldrons were a part of every home, now they're seldom seen except at Halloween or as a yard decoration. But cauldrons with magical powers go back to the myth of the Celtic Goddess Cerridwen, whose cauldron represented the cycle of birth, renewal, rebirth and transformation. Witches today often burn small fires (balefires) or incense in their cauldrons. The cauldron can also represent the womb during the Great Rite ritual, which calls up the union of the God and Goddess from which new life comes.
A chalice (cup) is used in ceremonies to represent the female principle of water. The chalice can also be used in place of the cauldron in performing the Great Rite, as well as in a "Cake and Ale" rite where a cup of wine is blessed by the High Priest and passed from member to member in the circle.
Clothing is optional for most rituals, although most covens require that everyone is in agreement to going skyclad (naked) before anyone does. Otherwise, witches wear long, hooded robes of varying, usually dark colors.
An altar paton is a plate (or disk) of either metal or wood with a pentagram design on it. It is used on the altar to hold the tools needed for the ceremony and to act as a focal point.
The pentacle is a five-pointed star (a pentagram) enclosed within a circle. The "upright" pentacle or pentagram (one point up, two points down) is a widely recognized symbol of witchcraft. The points represent earth, fire, water, air and spirit. The circle represents the God and Goddess that allow the energy of the pentagram to be focused. It is symbolic of the idea of bringing together spirit and earth.
Before a ritual, the area must be purified. Sage is often used (as is a besom, above) to cleanse the area of unwanted energies. When burned, the sage creates a thick, grayish smoke.
Another purifying agent is salt. The salt is usually in either a seashell or a glass dish. Salt is mixed with water to represent the elements of earth and water in order to consecrate the circle.
Witches can use a staff like they would a wand. The staff is usually shoulder height.
Some witches choose to use a sword rather than an athame to mark the boundaries of the circle.
Thurible (incense burner)
Incense represents the element of air. When burned, it also represents fire, both of which are used to purify the area or the tools being used. The thurible is often a small cauldron of metal or any other fire-resistant material.
Many witches use wands. Wands represent fire and the life force of the witch. It is a symbol of power, wisdom and healing. The wand, like the sword, staff and athame, can be used to cast the circle. It may also be used to direct energy during a spell.
The water container used in the consecration of the circle can be any type of container as long as it is large enough to hold three pinches of salt and be stirred with the athame. Water is another purification agent.
Wiccan Ritual Preparation
This ritual preparation is a basic outline of the Gardnerian tradition of Wicca. Other traditions borrow extensively from this method, but they do have variances. What follows is a representation of the steps that may be followed in carrying out a ritual -- like any religion, different sects have different methods, and there is no single "right way" of holding a ceremony.
- Purifying The first thing witches do is purify a circular area to get rid of any unwanted energy or forces. A witch may use a broom (besom) to sweep the area and/or burn a bundle of sage, holding it over his or her head while walking in a spiral pattern around the circle and then pausing at each of the four quadrants (north, south, east and west). Each witch participating in the ritual is also purified by waving incense around his or her body.
- Setting up the Altar The altar is set up at the east side of the circle with candles to represent the God and Goddess, salt and water for purification, the athames of the High Priest and Priestess and incense. They place quarter candles at each of the four quarters of the circle.
- Casting the Sacred Circle The High Priest and Priestess cast the Sacred Circle. The Sacred Circle is considered to be a spot that is without place or time. The circle is cast by marking its edges with an athame or other tool such as a staff, sword or wand. They purify the area again with salt and water. They place three pinches of salt into the water and stir it nine times with the athame. Then, this salty mixture is sprinkled around the perimeter of the circle. Incense is then lit and carried around the perimeter of the circle.
- Calling the Quarters The witches call together the spirits of the four elements: earth, fire, water and air. The elements are the guardians that guide and protect the witches.
- Invoking the Deity A deity has to be involved in order to perform magick, so at this point in the ritual, the deities are called. Depending on the ritual, it could be either the God, the Goddess or both. They are called by reciting invocations related to the specific ritual.
Everything up to this point has been preparation for the ritual. It is at this time that the witches begin the actual ritual they are performing.
Performing and Ending the Ritual
There are many ceremonies and rituals performed by Wiccan witches. The Great Rite is a central one, so we will describe that ritual here.
Performing the Ritual
The Great Rite ritual represents the sexual union of the God and Goddess, from which new life comes. This union is not only to bring good harvest, but is also to continue the circle of life so that the new God can be born at Yule (see the next section to learn about Yule). When this rite is performed, it can either be symbolic -- using the athame and cauldron to represent the sexual union -- or else the sexual act can be performed by the High Priest and Priestess. If the sexual act is to be performed, the entire coven must be in agreement that that is how they want the Great Rite carried out, and the actual union is performed in private, not with the rest of the coven present. Often, the High Priest and Priestess are married.
More common is the symbolic version of the Great Rite. In this version, the cauldron or chalice represents the womb and is held by the High Priestess. The athame is the phallic representation and is held by the High Priest. This rite may vary, but in some covens it follows that the High Priestess kneels at the altar with the cauldron in her hands facing the High Priest. The High Priest faces her with his athame. Each recites lines to bring the Sun King to dance with the Maiden of Spring. Then, the High Priest lowers the athame into the cauldron as they both recite words of the Land of Youth, the Wine of Life and the Cauldron of Cerridwen. The High Priest then takes the cauldron, holds it up in the air and proclaims that this rite symbolizes the union of the God and Goddess.
Once the ritual is complete, the circle must be closed.
Closing the Circle
The steps of casting the circle are reworked, only backward. The invoked deities are thanked for their help, the quarters are released and the High Priest or Priestess "takes down" the circle by walking around the perimeter (in an opposite direction from before) with his or her athame pointed outward.
The Wiccan Sabbats
Part of the Wiccan philosophy is the eternal cycle of life. The Wheel of the Year is essentially the Wiccan calendar, and it shows the never-ending cycle.
The Wiccan year begins on the sabbat (holy day) of Yule, when the Goddess gives birth to the God. The God grows strong through spring and summer, and then in fall, the God and Goddess unite. At this time, the Goddess becomes pregnant with the new God. The old God dies on Samhain (Halloween) to be reborn at Yule. This cycle is acted out symbolically during certain rituals and is known as the Great Rite (see previous section).
There are eight sabbat rituals throughout the year:
- Yule: Celebrated at the Winter Solstice, Yule is the celebration of the Goddess giving birth to the God.
- Imbolc: Celebrated on February 2, it is the time when the first plantings of spring crops occur. It is also considered to be a time of spiritual cleansing and renewal of vows.
- Ostara: Celebrated at the Spring Equinox in March, this sabbat represents a new beginning partly because it marks the beginning of longer days and shorter nights. It also marks the union of the God and Goddess and therefore symbolizes fertility.
- Beltane: Celebrated on May 1, it represents the end of the planting season and the beginning of harvesting. It also represents fertility, as the celebration often involves loosened rules for fidelity.
- Litha: Celebrated at the Summer Solstice, this sabbat represents the peak of the God's strength. It may involve lighting large bonfires to ward off evil spirits.
- Lughnasadh: Celebrated on August 1, this is a time when the Goddess turns over control to the God. It is a time of feasts and craft festivals.
- Mabon: Celebrated at the Autumn Equinox, Mabon represents the balance between light and dark, as it is the day that nights start becoming longer than days. It is officially the Pagan day of Thanksgiving.
- Samhain: Celebrated on Halloween, Samhain means the end of summer and the beginning of winter. On this night, the dead are said to be able to communicate with the living in order to be with and celebrate with their families.
So now you've had a small peek into the world of modern Wiccan witches. For more information on witchcraft, paganism and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- The Witches' Voice
- SalemWeb: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692
- Covenant of the Goddess
- Witches' League for Public Awareness
- Definition of Witchcraft
- Documents of the Witchcraze
- New Advent.org: Results and Consequences of the Reformation
- "The Salem Witch Trials," edited by Laura Marvel, Greenhaven Press, 2003
- "Spellcasters: Witches and Witchcraft in History, Folklore, and Popular Culture," by Pauline Bartel, Taylor Trade Publishing, Dallas TX, 2000
- "Spellworks for Covens: Magick for two or more" by Edain McCoy, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 2002
- "To Stir a Magick Cauldron: A Witch's Guide to Casting and Conjuring," by Silver RavenWolf, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 2001
- "Wiccan Beliefs & Practices," by Gary Cantrell, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 2001