What is Witchcraft?
The title of this piece presents an interesting question, though it may not seem to be at first. Defining witchcraft is just one of those debated and endless tasks that is usually best served on a plate of experience and opinion with a little history on the side. So, every witch and non-witch has a way to explain and define what witchcraft is and this post reflects my current understanding on the matter. And in case you are wondering why I am writing on such a rudimentary topic, I’m writing this piece so I have something to refer back to in any future posts because I would like to blog more about what I have been up to (meaning witchcraft). Capeesh? However, I would also like to elaborate further on this topic because of my appearance on Infinite Beliefs, which is a new podcast. When I was asked about it, I feel as if I stumbled a little in my response.
Now, just to get the obvious out of the way, lets default to some dictionary definitions for some banal initial insight just in case you need it, though I doubt it. According to the following wonderful online sources, witchcraft can be defined as:
Magical things that are done by witches : the use of magical powers obtained especially from evil spirits – Merriam Webster
1. The art or practices of a witch; sorcery; magic.
2. Magical influence; witchery. – Dictionary.com
The practice of magic, especially black magic; the use of spells and the invocation of spirits. See also Wicca. – Oxford Dictionary
The use of magic, esp. in stories, to help or harm people. – Cambridge Dictionary
Now, based on my experience- the above definitions are not entirely helpful, because they do not reflect the complexity and substance that I feel witchcraft can contain. Interestingly, if we stayed with the idea of working magick and calling upon spirits as a basis to define witchcraft then amusingly, by default, we could also be talking about most of the religious world because all religions practice magick in some form or another (whether or not they would admit it) and all religions usually engage in dialogue with transcendent or non-corporeal beings in one way or another because that’s pretty much how most religions role. So, because of this, our definition of witchcraft must be more developed in its explanation so as to distinguish it from other systems of practice.
The other problem we face in defining the word witchcraft, is that it happens to be, historically speaking, a generic term for many different things ranging from blatant sorcery to wishing wells and laser-pointers, depending on where you are. So, to be blunt about it, there is no one thing or one way that can be referred to as “true witchcraft”, which can be upsetting to some. The best we could do at defining witchcraft, historically speaking, is to limit our definition to a particular region, culture, or period of time, which would help to better construct a basis for our understanding. For example from my experience, contemporary witchcraft mostly reflects the esoteric practices found in the UK and Europe with the religion of Wicca being heavily influenced by late 19th century occultism, which in itself harkens back to older systems and texts. However, just for the record- Wicca is a religion and it is not witchcraft, nor do I feel that is it a type of witchcraft, though there are some who have argued that it is a type of witchcraft based on some of the components found in its ritual practice, such as incense being used to magickally clear a space.
The problem with this argument is that if the magickal use of incense or other similar items and effects were enough to define a religion or religious practice as being ‘witchcraft’ then we have to harbor the notion that ALL RELIGIONS ARE A TYPE OF WITCHCRAFT by default, which could in turn define a majority of people as being witches, which we know would be a gross assumption to make. Although most, if not all, religions utilize magick in some manner, they would probably staunchly proclaim that they are not practicing witchcraft and I would heartily agree. So, to reiterate- Wicca is not witchcraft, however it is a religion that specifically incorporates witchcraft into its system of worship and practice. And while we’re on the subject: Wicca is not THE religion of witchcraft, though the two (witchcraft and religion) often go hand in hand. The reason for this is that witchcraft can be practiced in light of any personal religious affiliation that one might have and is usually rooted or backed by some form of cosmology or theology. For example, medieval European witchcraft and even Hoodoo are all heavily rooted in Christianity.
So, with all that being said- in my opinion, the trade of a witch (witchcraft) is a multi-disciplinary practice which entails a combination of the following skill sets which through their union and developed application become what I feel witchcraft to be. (As an aside, I will often list history and folklore in my explanation of what witchcraft involves because the two offer valuable insight and context in regards to any practices or what witchcraft was and can still be. However, in this essay I have only chosen to mention them here instead of listing them because listing “witchcraft: history and folklore” as a means to help define witchcraft, would be redundant and ineffectual.) Any who, the four primary skill sets that comprise witchcraft are:
These four skills, when combined and applied in different ways, lay the ground work for various other disciplines, practices, and techniques which can become very shamanistic, paving the way for soul flight, trance work, and other methodologies pertaining to different forms of spirit work and the art of necromancy. And just for clarification in case these four above listed concepts are new to you, I’ll discuss them in brief to help further contextualize my feelings on what witchcraft is.
Magick is something which has been attempted by most, but only actually intentionally practiced by some. Magick is the focus and application of one’s intention upon their linear existence to effect outcome and to manifest change via a particular technique or methodology. So, magick can involve anything from carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot, visiting/using wishing wells, making or using holy water, and blowing out birthday candles to chanting incantations to focus and raise energy, burning of candles for a desired effect, burying a statue of St. Joseph in one’s yard to sell a house, or the wearing of religious iconography for influence or protection. The art of magick is an inescapable part of being human and religious practice in general. It is the way in which we spiritually interact with the world and cosmos through will and intent to cause change to occur in our lives.
The idea of spirits and our ability to interact with them opens our world view to animistic practices such as the utilization of bones and animal parts for magick, divination, shape-shifting, etc. as well as the awareness of spirits of the land, plants, animals, the awareness of the dead, ancestors, and tapping into the memory of place. This also then crosses over into the realms of herbalism and divination.
Herbalism is the study, use, and application of herbs for social, medicinal, and spiritual purposes. This includes spices and seasonings that contribute to the culinary arts as well as scents, perfumes, and oils. As well as tonics, teas, tinctures, incense, salves, poultices, ointments, etc. for medicinal, recreational, religious, or spiritual reasons which are more appropriately referred to as entheogens as opposed to ‘psychedelics.’ The spiritual benefits of herbs aid in achieving trance state during ritual which permits journeying, shape-shifting, and spirit flight and begins to reveal a shamanistic component to one’s practice which blurs the lines between the various planes of existence and one’s perception of life and the cosmos.
The study and growing of herbs combined with a growing spiritual awareness opens one up to the reality of plant spirits and spirits of the land also referred to as the genius loci, or spirit of place. This is similar to the vibe that a room, house, field, forest grove, etc. presents to oneself upon entering. This vibe can change over time and may even begin to exhibit ‘a voice’ after a relationship has been formed with it. Plants, animals, and insects will begin speak to the practitioner in their own way and a visual language of the landscape will become more and more familiar the more one’s awareness and involvement grows and develops. It is in this way that the motif of talking plants and animals found in fairy tales and movies begin to make sense. This developed intuition and awareness also pertains to the art of divination.
Divination is the art and practice of gaining divine insight through a system of symbols or some form of ritualized methodology or both. The word comes from the Latin divinare which means to foresee, to be inspired by a god. The most common and recognizable systems of divination are probably astrology as utilized by many in the form of horoscopes and cartomancy, or more specifically- card reading or the Tarot. Divinatory services are often marketed or advertised as ‘fortune telling’ but simply doing tarot readings or referencing astrological information doesn’t make one a witch. Divination helps us to develop a better understanding of what might be up ahead on the road of life or to help us in any decision making we might have to do. Combined with spirit work and magick, we find the art of necromancy, divining with the dead where spirits and the ancestors are contacted for help, aid, and answers to life’s problems. In modern times we find a form of this practice in the Spiritualist religion or with mediums, neither of which would necessarily regard themselves as being witches or practicing witchcraft.
Seership is more the term I’m going with in this post, but this aspect of witchcraft involves a developed intuition or a more common phrase would be Extra Sensory Perception (ESP). In subtle ways this is more known as the “gut reaction.” In more developed ways this can be experienced by feelings or information one gets from an object, person, or place or in the experiencing of visions, lucid dreaming, or channeling and spirit communication. Any of the normal everyday five senses, combined with a developed psychic awareness, can be extremely revealing and valuable. For example, breathe in through the nose to gain insight from your surroundings on an olfactory level, but also on a psychic level as well.
In conclusion, the ongoing theme throughout this piece is that self-identification as a witch is a big part of understanding what witchcraft is because we learn about it by looking at and understanding what witches do. It should also be emphasized that practicing any one of the above skill sets doesn’t simply make one a witch as there are existing titles that go along with any of the above individual disciplines, which is why I feel the presence and intentional practice of the four listed in some manner or another is absolutely vital to being and calling oneself a witch. With all that being said- to me, witchcraft is the combination and interplay of those above skill sets and together forms a spiritual methodology that enables one to ascertain a personal religious dialogue between themselves and the cosmos or which adds a layer of techniques to one’s existing religious practice.