5 Witchcraft

Chapter 5 audio can be accessed on Soundcloud. Instructor resources are available on Canvas Commons.  


Hand holding crystals
Untitled by Dan Farrell. Available for use through Unsplash license.


Chapter 5 Learning Objectives

At the end of this chapter, you’ll be able to:

  • Define and identify examples of imitative and contagious magic.
  • Explain the socio-cultural factors that lead to witchcraft accusations.
  • Explain the differences between Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft.

5.1 “Witchcraft” and types of magic

The term witchcraft is a broad-reaching term that encompasses a wide variety of practices. Practices that we might define as “witchcraft” today have been performed for many thousands of years all over the world without being labeled in those exact terms. For most of human history, these practices were not seen or defined as ‘witchcraft’, but were simply the religious and spiritual practices of people.

Imagine living in a hunter-gatherer world, not knowing exactly what caused illnesses, whether there was going to be a harsh winter, or whether there would be plenty of game to satisfy the needs of the community. People created ways to seek out answers and interpret signs that could explain events or foretell the future. Like all religious traditions, these practices have and continue to give people a sense of security, a way to alleviate anxiety about unknown events, ensure a livelihood, or even bring retribution to those who have wronged them.

Recall that we defined the term “witchcraft” in Chapter 1 as

  • We use the term to refer to the many different religious communities who refer to themselves as witches. Although this form of witchcraft actually exists in many forms, it is often the case that witches believe in the supernatural powers of the “natural” world (parts of the world that are not human-made).
  • At the same time, many societies also use the term “witch” as an accusation intended to punish people who don’t conform to society’s standards. 

Across cultures, witches are believed to be individuals who can manipulate the natural world through magical means. Recall that in chapter 1, we explained that “magic” refers to a person or group’s efforts to change their life through supernatural means.

Across cultures, there are generally two fundamental principles of magic. The first is imitative magic. Imitative magic is based on the principle that ‘like’ produces ‘like’.  This is sometimes called sympathetic or imitative magic and can be seen in Voodoo, through the creation of dolls, images or drawings to perform magic. 

The second is contagious magic. This is based on the principle that things once in contact can influence each other after the contact is broken. Items or things possess an ‘essence’. Magic such as this uses a lock of hair, an article of clothing, or some other item or piece of an individual.

Witchcraft also includes the practice of divination. Divination is a magical procedure or ritual designed to find out what is not knowable by ordinary means; such as the foretelling of the future by interpreting omens. Types of divination that we might find familiar in society are Tarot cards, tea leaf reading, and bibliomancy (use of books to answer a question). The entrails of animals or random casting of stones (runes), as well as interpreting the movements and actions of animals or other natural events may also be used in divinatory rituals.

The contemporary usage of the term “witchcraft” has many connotations from the New Age/Earth-Based/Goddess-worshipping perspective to the perspective of witchcraft as something evil and dark. Remember, however, that both of these perspectives are Eurocentric (grounded in European thought and belief). The modern/Western Wicca religion is based on pre-Christian Celtic religious beliefs (i.e. European), while the view of witchcraft as dark and dangerous stems from a Eurocentric Christian perspective. Even the Eurocentric term “witchcraft” is based on the Celtic word “Wicca” meaning ‘wise one’. 

None of these understandings of witchcraft take into consideration the rest of human history or and a Non-European worldview, where people engage in what we define as witchcraft. For billions of people, these practices are considered beloved religious traditions that connect them to the spirit world and give people a sense of hope and faith

Let’s explore this further. When we use the term “witchcraft,” we must be careful to clarify the exact context within which we are using the word. Consider the following:


  • Witchcraft in pop culture: Witches are presented in popular culture as evil-doers who cause harm by harnessing dark, magical forces. This representation does not actually reflect any major religious or spiritual belief or practice and is used as a story-telling device.
  • Witchcraft as a spirituality: There does, however, exist a myriad of religions and spiritualities that believe in every person’s inherent power and in the divine elements of nature. Some of these groups engage in rituals that rely on magical beliefs. These practitioners may call themselves, “witches”. These groups are firmly against using magic to harm others and do not resemble horror-based witches from movies and television.
  • The witchcraft accusation: Across many human cultures and across generations, humans have utilized what anthropologists call the “witchcraft accusations.” The witchcraft accusation is a cultural tool that is used to punish individuals who do not conform to society’s expectations. For example, if a woman in a religious society refuses to embody her culture’s values of feminine docility, she might be publicly accused of being a “witch” so that her community can exercise power to more strictly control her behavior and regulate her life. While many are familiar with the way witchcraft accusations were applied throughout the Salem Witch Trials, these accusations are used in other places around the globe, too.  

Specifically, within Christian society, the witchcraft accusation takes on a unique set of characteristics. While some cultures view witchcraft as a natural or neutral force, Christian cultures are more likely to equate witchcraft to sorcery (the practice of utilizing supernatural forces for evil) (Stein and Stein 2017, 219-224). In this context, practicing witchcraft is viewed as a crime against God and/or as a form of devil worship. Please note that, in some Christian communities, any non-Christian religion is also viewed as a form of devil-worship and/or a crime against God. In these particular cases, any form of non-Christian religious practice can be equated to witchcraft. It’s this element that first connected the Ancient European Pagan religions that predate Christianity to the “witchcraft” label that was applied in an effort to convert the entire European continent to Christianity (Stein and Stein 2017, 219-220).

Exercise 5A

Various methods of divination are used across cultures. A number of these methods can be found on the web, such as the virtual fortune cookie site. To better understand the language used for divination open a virtual fortune cookie and examine your fortune.

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. What kind of language are you seeing? Is it very specific language or is it very ambiguous?
  2. Why, do you think fortune-telling and divination need to utilize such generalized language?

5.2 Applying Cultural Relativism to Witchcraft Beliefs

 Witchcraft accusations exist outside of Europe, and the most famous anthropological examination of this took place in Central Africa. 

E.E. Evans-Pritchard was a British anthropologist who lived among the Azande people in central Africa (in the North-Eastern area).  People within Azande communities build tall granaries on wooden stilts to hold their food and supplies so that no animals are able to get it. And since the region is very hot and offers little sources of shade, people often meet under the granaries to talk and share the news of the day. Unfortunately, sometimes the termites of the region will chew through the granary stilts, causing the granary to collapse and tragically killing (or injuring) everyone underneath. In the worldview of the Azande, a person who dies in this type of accident has been killed by an act of witchcraft. This situation was particularly interesting to Evans-Pritchard and led to his publication on the matter.

Evans Pritchard tried to explain to the local people that, actually, it was termites that were causing the tragedy. The local people turned to him and explained that they understood termites caused the collapse, but the odds that a person was standing underneath the granary at that exact moment was an unfortunate event and misfortune that needed to be explained. In Azande society, misfortune and suffering is typically thought to be caused by witchcraft (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 19).

This is not an entirely unique worldview; actually, most cultures have beliefs like this. Consider the last time that you saw a blue pendant hanging in someone’s doorway, car, or as a necklace. These blue pendants are used to ward off the “Evil Eye.” Many cultures have a manifestation of the evil eye. It is believed in these cultures that when a person feels extremely jealous or angry with you then they can actually harm you by having such strong feelings. The idea that a person’s feelings or thoughts can lead to negative outcomes serves two functions in society:

  1. This belief prevents antisocial behavior. We define antisocial behavior as any behavior that does not conform with society’s expectations. So, for example, if you get into a fight with a person in public and then learn that they fell and broke their leg afterward, you might be accused of hurting them with your anger. In Azande society, a person who is accused of witchcraft is often kicked out of the community or sometimes killed. So, many of the Azande will make an effort to maintain composure and to not behave with great jealousy because they don’t want to be accused of being witches if the person they fought with has some bad luck (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 419). Anthropologists call these “witchcraft accusations” and they serve the function of preventing antisocial behavior (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 25).
  2. This belief explains misfortune or suffering. To many human beings, life can feel exceptionally illogical and out of our control. All cultures find a way to explain why bad things happen. Witchcraft beliefs explain misfortune by tying the misfortune to people’s intentions (Evans-Pritchard 1935, 30).

In the Azande worldview, a person is born with a physical ability to curse another with witchcraft powers. Witches can be both men and women and the ability is passed down genetically (from mother to daughter and father to son) (Gillies and Evans-Pritchard 1976, 2). The substance that gives the person powers is called “mangu” and it’s believed that it can be seen at night. A person does not necessarily know that they were born with mangu though, and they can harm an enemy accidentally. 

By practicing cultural relativism, we can understand the cultural logic of this belief system. By taking a cross-cultural perspective, we can understand that we have similar beliefs in our own culture, and by examining the function we can see the role that this belief system plays in society.

5.3 Witchcraft Accusations and Social Structure

As you already understand, witchcraft explains unfortunate events and is an explanation for suffering. We ask ourselves: “Why has someone died?” Or perhaps, “why are we not able to kill the wild pigs that are destroying the crops?” For many, nothing bad happens by chance alone.

When there are unfortunate events in society that are not explainable, witchcraft accusations are hurled at antisocial persons. It is typically part and parcel to a worldview that supports the pre-established moral order of that particular culture. Accusations tend to keep people in line, lest they be accused of witchcraft. In the case of an individual becoming a victim of witchcraft, suspicion of witchcraft falls on those closest to the victim. The greatest animosities are among those who are closely related. Where are the tensions in human relationships? They are typically between those who are most closely connected: brothers, co-wives, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, etc.  

Anthropologist James Brain argues that witchcraft accusations are more prominent in societies with little or no social mobility. Social scientists refer to “social mobility” as the ability for families or individuals to move between class and social levels. In other words, a culture that allows people to advance their social status through different careers may have high social mobility. On the other hand, a society that strictly ties class and social status to race or gender will have less social mobility. In Brain’s view, societies with little or no social mobility are more likely to strive to change their own social status and/or to reinforce the pre-existing social order through witchcraft accusations (Brain 1989, 15-27). 

5.4 Witch Hunts in Early Modern Europe (1450 – 1700)

What led to the witch-hunts of early modern Europe? What were people accused of during this time? Who was accused and what was their demographic profile? Why did this all happen during this period? Anthropologist James Brain’s “mobility theory” is useful in thinking about these questions. When a community is stuck in a bad situation, such as a famine, leaders often resort to witch hunts as a solution. This is one explanation for why a community initiates a witch hunt. 

In the emic view of the late medieval world, coming into the early modern period, there were two principal activities that witches were thought to engage in:

  1. Performance of maleficium – I.e., harmful magic. 

Many human societies have believed in magic for a very long time. In Europe there were two principal sources of magical practice, good or bad: there were the folk magical practices that had been handed down probably from pagan times; you could put a hex on a neighbor’s fields or animals, or do a little love magic, or protect yourself with charms and amulets. Then there was the scholarly magic that came from texts, most of which were brought into Europe from the Middle East and India in the 12th and 13th centuries. A lot of it was devoted to astrology/astronomy and alchemy; but there were hundreds of manuals and guides to the practice of both “good” and “evil” magic that have survived from many different historical periods. These texts are proof that people did in fact practice sorcery.

  1. Diabolism – Worship of the Devil

Christian theologians were speculating on the source of these magical powers. There were only two powers in the cosmos, in their view: the power of God and the power of the Devil. Since magic wasn’t based on prayer and the authority of the church, it had to be based on demonic or Satanic power. Thus the theory emerged that witches had made pacts with the devil or were worshipping the devil. By the 15th and 16th centuries, most educated Europeans believed that witches, in addition to practicing evil magic, had made pacts with the Devil and were engaged in active and regular worship of him. These beliefs included the Devil seducing witches by appearing at night and male witches desecrating the cross. The Devil was believed to put a distinctive mark on the witch’s body, usually some kind of concealed spot.

But, was anybody really doing this? We have to ask this question because we have seen that in other parts of the world, the witch is almost always an innocent bystander accused of doing evil. There are many interesting possibilities of what might have actually been occurring, whereas no one accused of witchcraft during this time ever actually admitted to the practice. Evidence points to the fact that these people were accused due to their antisocial behavior rather than any form of actual devil worship. 

5.5 The Malleus: “Hammer of the Witches”

Some of the first popular publications in Europe, most famously in Germany with Johannes Gutenberg’s press from about 1436, were Bibles, woodcuts, and witch hunting manuals. In 1487 two German priests from the Dominican Order wrote and published The Malleus: “Hammer of the Witches”, which claimed to be the definitive manual on witches, Satan, and how to get confessions from accused witches. The book is highly misogynistic, with huge sections aimed at women. Women are described as more prone than men to become devotees of Satan and engage in sacrificial infanticide, orgies and sex with the devil. Along with detailing witches’ behaviors it outlines punishment for witchcraft, which consists of torture and execution. This book has remained in print, and is still available today, with a lengthy introduction from the Roman Catholic Church that does not retract anything from the original version and claims it to still the best work on demonic activity available. 

At this point the printing press had just been invented, and this was one of the first mass-produced books. This manual was disseminated all over Europe to priests and magistrates who were tracking down witches and trying them in court. When these women “confessed,” their confessions all sounded alike. At the time, this was believed to be evidence of widespread Satanic worship. However, it was the result of interrogators all reading the same source and planting the ideas that the accused had to confess to under torture.

What was it that caused this outbreak of witchcraft accusations? These great witch hunts of 1450-1700 did not grow out of the common folk or the popular culture of the time. This process required an intellectual class of priests, scholars, lawyers, and judges to construct the demonological theory, to institutionalize judicial procedures, and to communicate a terror of the nefarious work of witches to a vast class-stratified public. It was a class of experts who created the witch craze, the prosecutions, and the executions.

There had been changes in the law during this time. Roman law which had been handed down from the Roman Empire was being replaced by new laws, especially in Germany. This movement was ahead in Germany, where the state sought expert advice from German universities. These changes allowed for confessions to be obtained under torture. The testimony of children was also allowed according to the new laws. In other surrounding areas, such as Denmark, the laws were different. In Denmark, for example, interrogation under torture was outlawed, the law forbade testimony of people who had been convicted of infamous crimes and the testimony of children was not allowed. In Germany, most of the huge trials after 1625 featured children as accusers and sometimes as the accused.

Every step of the proceedings against witches was laid out by the law. There had to be trials; these weren’t lynchings. Charges had to be brought before a judge and a testimony had to be given. The witch had to be interrogated by officials acting on behalf of the state with everything being recorded. The witch was the one responsible for the court and proceedings costs, which often came out of their property, if they had any. All of these court cases were fully recorded, and the records exist to this day by the thousands, unless for some reason they were lost or destroyed.

5.6 The Salem Witch Trials: A Year of Terror

Image of a plaque for Susanna Martin, accused of witchcraft and executed in 1692
Susanna Martin was accused of witchcraft and executed in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials. Susanna Martin Memorial Plaque by Benjamin Scott, 2012.

It began with a daughter and a niece of the local minister, Rev. Samuel Parris, showing very strange symptoms. They were 9 and 11 years old. At first a physician was called in, but almost immediately, it appeared they were victims of a crime, not a disease, and the crime was witchcraft. 

The physician himself suspected the “Evil Hand,” or evil witchcraft. Rumors immediately swept through the village. A young village wife named Mary Sibley suggested a divination in the form of a “witch cake.” Rye meal mixed with the urine of the afflicted girls should be baked and fed to a dog. If the girls were bewitched, the dog would then exhibit symptoms similar to theirs. It is not recorded what the dog did, but later Mary Sibley was denounced from the pulpit for suggesting such a diabolic plan.

The affliction began to spread. Seven more girls—aged 12 to 19, came down with the same afflictions. Adults in Salem Village questioned them intensely about who had bewitched them. 

They named names: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, a West Indian enslaved person in the pastor’s household. These 3 women were arrested. Osborne and Good denied they were witches, but Tituba confessed, in great detail, and even gave descriptions of the devil. He was hairy all over and had a long nose.

The bizarre behavior of the girls continued. A minister from Boston (Cotton Mather) came to observe the strange goings-on. He found a mysterious set of teeth marks on one of the girl’s arms. Another girl raced through the house, arms outstretched, crying “Whish! Whish! Whish!” and then began pulling burning logs out of the fireplace.

Timeline of events:

  • March 20 – Cotton Mather gave a vigorous anti-witchcraft sermon from the pulpit, but as he did so, the girls again behaved hysterically. Later in the day, one of the girl’s mothers fell victim to the spell.
  • March 21 – Martha Cory was arrested and examined before several hundred persons. As she was led into the room, the afflicted girls cried out in “extreme agony”; she wrung her hands, and they screamed they were being pinched; she bit her lips, and they screamed they could feel it in their own flesh.
  • April 21 – One of the girls claimed that former pastor George Burroughs was a wizard who had masterminded the entire outbreak. An officer was sent to Maine with a warrant for his arrest.
  • June 2 – Bridget Bishop was sentenced to death. 
  • On June 10, Bridget Bishop was hanged on a rocky elevation west of town which has been called “Witches’ Hill” ever since.
  • On June 29, the court sat a second time and convicted 5 more women. On July 19 all five women were hanged.  One of them, Sarah Goode, was asked to confess, but instead she shouted from the scaffold: “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.”
  • August 5 – Six more trials produced six more convictions. One of these was reprieved because she was pregnant and the court didn’t want to take away an innocent life. The “wizard” Rev. George Burroughs, was one of these, he protested his innocence and recited the Lord’s Prayer as he died. 
  • Early September – death sentence passed on another half dozen persons. One of them, however, was reprieved, and the other, the wife of a ship captain, was helped to escape from prison. One of these women wrote a petition from prison: “I petition your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and my appointed time is set, but if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed.” 
  • September 17 – Nine more persons were condemned. Five of them escaped hanging by confessing to the charges.
  • September 19 – Giles Cory, whose wife had already been hanged, had refused to plead to the charges, which was taken as an implicit denial of the court’s right to try him. Pressing was an old English procedure designed to force prisoners to enter a plea so their trial could proceed. Giles was subsequently killed because he refused to enter a plea (if he had the court would have confiscated his family’s belongings to pay for the trial). 
  • September 22 – The last 8 witches were carried by cart to Witches’ hill to be hanged. When one of its wheels lodged in a rut, a group of afflicted girls cried out that the devil was trying to save his servants. And when Samuel Wardwell choked on the smoke of the hangman’s pike while making a final appeal to the crowd, the taunting girls shouted that it was the devil who was hindering him from speaking.
  • September 22 was the last execution. A total of 19 people had been executed before it was over. There were still over 100 persons in jail waiting for trial.

Exercise 5B

Historian Stacey Schiff’s book, “The Witches” offers a fresh perspective on the Salem Witch Trials. Listen to her read an excerpt from her book on NPR, “A Witch’s Brew Of Fear And Fantasy: America’s Tiny Reign Of Terror.”

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. How were gender roles central to the Salem Witch Trials? How did these lead to violence?
  2. What was the function of the witchcraft accusation in Salem? Refer to Shiff’s arguments to support your answer.

5.7 The Salem Pattern

There was a pattern that emerged from the witch accusations and trials. The “victims” of witchcraft were mostly young girls and women that were members of powerful families, whose symptoms were “fits,” hysterical visions, and “spectral visits”.  The “victims” then typically accused other women (and some men) of witchcraft.  The authority figures were mostly male, who would imprison, try, and execute the witches.

5.8 The End of Terror

The whole colony of Massachusetts had been following these events with alarm. With 19 executions and over 100 persons still in jail, it had clearly gotten out of hand. Thankfully not everyone had been overcome with witch hysteria. There had been testimony and petitions on behalf of several of the accused. Daniel Elliot testified that late in March one of the girls had boasted to him that “she did it for sport; they must have some sport.” After the first hanging, one member of the court had resigned in disgust. 

Finally, it was the ministers from elsewhere in the state that put a stop to it. On June 15 a group of Boston ministers submitted a letter of advice to the Governor of Massachusetts urging “exquisite caution” in the use of evidence. In October, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather’s father, delivered a forceful sermon against the Court that was handing down the sentences: “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned.”


Portrait of Reverend Increase Mather
Memoirs of the Life of the Late Reverend Increase Mather by Robert White, 1645 – 1703

What constitutes admissible evidence in witchcraft cases? Increase Mather argued that “the evidence ought to be as clear as in any other crimes of a capital nature.”

But how do you prove the work of the devil? The most desirable kind of evidence was an outright confession. Over and over examiners tried desperately to draw a confession from the lips of someone whose guilt they never doubted—but against whom they did not have a true legal case.

The following examples were considered to be clear evidence of guilt:

  • Being unable to get through religious recitations was evidence; e.g., being able to recite the Lord’s Prayer was evidence. But better not fumble the words; one accused person said
    “hollowed be thy name” instead of “hallowed,” and went to the gallows.
  • Presence of the “witch’s tit” – an abnormal physical appendage that would give suck to the devil in the form of a bird, turtle, or other small creature. Three women were examined, and a witch’s tit was found between their vagina and anus; next day they were re-examined, and they appeared normal.
  • Spectral evidence – Bewitched persons were always claiming that known witches came to them as specters. “One morning about sunrise, as I was in bed before I rose, I saw Goodwife Bishop stand in the chamber by the window. And she looked on me and grinned on me, and presently struck me on the side of the head, which did very much hurt me. And then I saw her go out under the end window at a little crevice about so big as I could thrust my hand into.” But spectral evidence was always somewhat suspect. Increase Mather condemned spectral evidence.

On October 12, Governor Phips forbade any further imprisonments or trials for witchcraft. Three months later, he discharged all the remaining prisoners and issued a general pardon.

5.9 Satan in New England

Witches flying on broomsticks
A 1647 woodcut illustrating witches’ activities The History of Witches and Wizards

What did people believe about Satan that led to all this? This woodcut depicts the alleged activities of witches in Lancashire, Massachusetts, in 1612, from Matthew Hopkins, the Discoveries of Witches, 1647. The accused witches confessed to riding to witch meetings and participating in the Lord’s Supper and devil’s baptism. Meanwhile, theologians debated whether the devil actually had power to transport people through the air. What this tells us is that ideas about the devil, witches, and witch practices were pretty well thought out for at least a century prior to the witch hysteria in Salem in 1692. The beliefs of the people in Salem during this time about Satan was remarkably similar to those in Europe 200 years earlier. Below, we continue to look at changing perspectives on witchcraft over time, looking at witchcraft as it is practiced today.


Exercise 5C

Read Los Angeles Times article, “The working witches of Los Angeles just want you to be your best self” to learn more about the lives and belief systems of modern witches.

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. What types of help do modern witches offer (according to this article)?
  2. What types of belief systems are filling in for religion in secular society?

5.10 Reflections from practicing Witch, Griffin Ced 

So, what is it like to be a witch today? 

The following excerpt is written by Griffin Ced, a practicing Witch in Los Angeles. Griffin Ced is the Virtue holder and Witch Father for the Ced Tradition and family line. He and Rita Morgan, the Dame and Mother of the Line, have led the Line and Tradition in the USA for the past 20 years. The Witchblood was passed onto him across the veil from his Great-Grandmother. Griffin has been teaching and leading public rituals for the past two decades and is committed to community-building today at The Green Man store in North Hollywood, where he is the manager. At the Green Man, in addition to selling Pagan products, Griffin and his associates offer public rituals and many diverse craft-related classes on a weekly basis.

“I am often asked, “what is Traditional Witchcraft and how is it different from Wicca?” And, as with all Witchcraft paths and Traditions, this is not an easy question because Witchcraft is truly the path for the renegade free spirit within the Pagan/Spirituality community. Drawing Witches into a cohesive identifiable group of any sort is truly like herding cats and Traditional Witchcraft is no exception. 

I find it best to share my own perspective based on my own practices, beliefs and understandings. These I have gleaned over more than 4 decades as a Traditional Witch and over two decades of leading a Coven and Tradition as well as teaching and presenting Trad Craft to the general public. All that said, there are many others with valid experiences and credentials who, coming from other Traditional foundations, would present Traditional Witchcraft in quite a different manner. 

As with all such explorations, look for multiple, diverse sources and find what speaks to you personally. That is in fact an approach that would be perfectly in accord with Traditional Witchcraft practices, as I present it. As Traditional Witchcraft is rooted in one’s personal senses or rather extra-sensory abilities, built upon one’s intuition, we call it “The Sight” aka “The Gifts”. Informed through direct communion with the many forms and expressions of Spirit, a Traditional Witch is then guided by their own sense of right and wrong employing what one might call one’s Ethical Compass. It is this personal and direct communion relationship a Traditional Witch has with Spirit that sets them as a “Heretic”: meaning outside of all forms of organized religion.

Witches circumvent any priesthood authority mediating Spirit or imposing a codified “One and True practice” or belief with regards all things related to Spirit. Hence, over the ages, since religion in its many forms has become such big business, the worst of all crimes against the Church or Temple has been that of Heresy. Therefore Witches have been identified as key Heretical practitioners, because of their engagement in direct communion, circumventing all forms of priesthood. Such Witches are impossible to control or direct, as they have a straight line to God/dess in all its aspects. We are the epitome of artistic free spirits within the arena of Spirit-based practices, such as religion. For this reason, we see our form of Witchcraft as the Olde Arte of Witchery. 

To call it a faith would be incorrect, as it’s based upon personal experience of interactions with Spirits and Gods, and so faith doesn’t enter into it. However, those who are not born Witches or don’t have the Gifts, have identified Witches as practitioners who deal with Spirit and Gods and as such: those one may go to when in need of such an intermediary, circumventing the mainstream church or priesthood. And so such Witches have been identified as practitioners of what others may call The Elder Faith or the Old Religion.

So, how is this different from Wicca? Wicca has its modern day roots in a Tradition brought into its clear formation by a Witch of the 1950’s called Gerald Gardner. The Tradition he formed after the Witchcraft Laws were repealed in Britain has become known as the Gardnerian Tradition, which is still very much thriving today. Gardnerian Wicca is an initiatory tradition that keeps its practices secret until after initiation into a working coven. That said, some beliefs and practices have been published over the years either by Gardnerians or by associated Traditions such as Alexandrian Wicca which has published quite a deal of basic material. Foundational practices taken from these Traditional Wiccan publications have given us within the Pagan Community some basic tenets of belief and a basic structure for community rituals. As Wicca spread, the later eclectic Wiccan publications further embellished a myriad of forms for the Wicca. But more commonly it has become accepted that Wicca is a form of Goddess-based religious or spiritual practice, with a ruling High Priestess as final authority. Wicca has a structured working system based upon the elemental system as taken from Ceremonial practices. It sees itself as a religious practice, often seeing itself as an Elder religious system with Priestesses and Goddesses at the centre.

The Ceremonial ritual structure employed by Wiccans, being a more structured ritualized magical system, lends itself better to people of all walks of life, from those who purely seek a spiritual practice and connection to those who seek magical manifestation through a formula approach. If one does this and that, certain results can be expected. If one trains and perfects through practice certain ritual actions etc., then one can ascend through a hierarchy into a recognized position within the attendant magical community. Specific actions, codified and perfected through practice, serve anticipated results. This requires of the practitioner only faith in the system they are taking on and faith in the results they seek: basically faith in those who have worked this system out and are presenting their experiences and the system they have enfleshed as holding valid results if pursued.

This is not the case with Traditional Witchcraft. How can you tell a person to now follow instructions and paint a Mona Lisa? Or please follow the instructions and give birth to a Mozart Requiem? Now a Wiccan practitioner may also hold the Gifts and approach the Wiccan practices as an Arte of Spirit, and through their Witch’s Arte bring life to that system and prove its validity. And on the other hand, an ego-driven Traditional Witch may in no manner be able execute the things they may be presenting. It all comes down to the true Virtue of the practitioner. Whether you’re a Wiccan or a Traditional Witch practitioner, the Virtue of your Spirit is the only currency that finally counts. For some, this relationship with their own Witch’s Spirit and the importance of Virtue to their ethical compass, is something they clearly see because it’s part of who they are. Such Witches follow a hunger that can never be satisfied and they hold their feet to the coals of Truth because they know the danger of illusion will destroy all they hold dear in life. They live in a world as true free spirits and heretics without bounds or limitations, where reality itself is mutable. As such they understand how important a compass of spirit is, as it casts its light into the dark unknown.

At the end of the day, there are those who identify as Wiccan for religious, political or philosophical reasons. There are those who identify as Traditional Witches for many of the same reasons. There are those who seek academic recognition and serve the crowd just as any religious celebrity would. Then there are some who wish to further their minds, immersing into the well of mystery–which if they’re not careful, will drink their wits into itself. But for the most part, people are somewhere in between all these states of seeking or pursuit. They are looking to find their path and their way, and what is most important is for them to find within themselves what speaks to them. Because if what you seek to hold is not true by your spirit, then it will never serve you truly and you will fall short of your true potential.

Regardless of how we identify ourselves, we can only be truly identified by others by visible mundane markers or keys. For Wicca it’s a Goddess religious spiritual path, casting a circle and working an elemental Earth-based magical system, incorporating elements of Magic–though Magic is not a requirement by all Wiccan traditions. For Traditional Witches I would say working in an Airts Compass, which is to say Spirit-based, using the Sight, to commune directly with Gods and spirits and in particular one form of spirit as a working partner.  But regardless of the system or form, the one defining earmark of all Witches, as I see it, is Heresy. We are the Heretical Arte of Witchery.”

5.11 Reflections from practicing Witch, Jill Weiss

The following excerpt is written by Jill Weiss, a practicing Witch in Los Angeles. Jill is an owner of The Green Man Store, and a Clan member of the Ced Tradition.  At The Green Man, Jill is the Chief Thread Spinner, Keeper of the Kingdom, Denizen of the Rose Castle, Tazmanian Devil, Stone & Crystal Maven, Awesome Jewelry Procurer, and Magical Concierge. A daughter of Dame Fate, Jill can often be found spinning ritual energies into thread on her spinning wheel.

“What is Witchcraft, and what is Witchcraft to me? Ask ten witches and you’ll get about 40 answers. To me, Craft is not a religion; it’s a practice.  There are atheist witches, Jewish witches, Christian witches, etc.  Craft, or magic, is the process of working on your own reality by focused power of will.  That said, the tradition I work doesn’t spend much time “doing spells”—it’s more about an every day awareness of one’s own ethics and how we choose to act in any given situation. I know, it doesn’t sound as cool as standing over a bubbling cauldron, but rest assured, we do that from time to time as well.  Sometimes I describe spells as “prayer with props”—we use tools to help us focus and concentrate, and some tools have specific meanings/properties that assist in the work we want to accomplish. For example (a very simplified one): you want to bring love into your life. Light a pink candle and have a rose quartz with it (the color pink and rose quartz are associated with emotional healing and love) and a magnet to draw love to you. Burn the candle and send out a call to the spirits/universe/Goddess/God/whatever to bring you a healthy love relationship. Prayer with props.

Witches are heretics. We commune with gods and spirits without the middleman of a priest or church telling us we can’t, and telling us what those gods and spirits are saying…which often turns out to be what said middleman wants it to be. This is very freeing, but it comes with responsibility, because now we have to make our own choices.

People often want to know about what is commonly called “dark magic” but what might be better called “harmful magic.” This magic is based in intent.  It is work you feel you ought to keep hidden rather than, as an ethical person, are proud to do in the light of day and in public. Essentially, this magic works on someone else’s free will or works to give you power over someone else. Our tradition feels this is unethical, and we won’t do it.  We typically don’t call what we do “white magic” (although some people do). I’d prefer calling what we practice “ethical magic” vs. “unethical magic.” Some people call it “low” magic as opposed to “high” magic–but then some consider ceremonial magic “high” and all other practices “low” regardless of intent!

You might ask, “what’s so wrong with making him fall in love with me/making her move away/breaking up that couple/getting him fired?” So many things. First, it’s unethical.  Second, once you open that door by working that way, you have created a pathway that goes both ways. You are now open and vulnerable to the same kind of work to be done against you. We have met folks who work this way, and they have become slaves to the candles and the jars and the pictures and the poppets: slaves to the spells they’ve done, because if they let up on their attacking energy, it can come back at them. They spend a third of their time on the offense and the other two-thirds on defense against those they’ve thrown a whammy at. Is that really the kind of coin you want to pay?  Over and over and over and over and over? And third, it’s unethical. Oh, did I say that already?  Good.

Also, you know the phrase “Be careful what you wish for”? Boy, can that apply here.  We’ve seen love spells aimed toward specific people produce not lovers, but stalkers.  And undoing a spell is much harder than doing one! This time you might be wondering, “Well then, what good is magic? What can I use it for?” You can use it to give a boost to things in your life you are already working on: prosperity, love (but not aimed at a specific person), getting a job (but not getting someone else fired), boosting your career (ditto), court justice, house blessing, general uncrossing, etc., not to mention the personal work that helps your spirit evolve. Magic doesn’t have to be spells. Magic is also communing with the spirits. Talking with nature. Getting messages from spirit guides, patron deities, archangels, whatever entities you work with. Learning and growing.

Why aren’t all witches rich? Besides mundane reasons, it’s about what you put in the center of your universe—what rules you. Our tradition puts self-evolving, not money, in the center. That’s not to say we wouldn’t do a prosperity working, but it’s often for someone else’s benefit. 

I was raised completely atheist, and felt there was nothing past this world. Eventually I started being interested in witchcraft, crystals, alternative healing modalities, etc.  Scared the shit outta me sometimes. I took classes in Wicca and other types of alternative spiritualities. Wicca, by the way, is a religion. Not all witches are Wiccans, by any stretch, and not all Wiccans practice witchcraft. Some are there only for the Goddess worship. I am not Wiccan. But I digress. I started having experiences and getting messages that I could ascribe only to something other: other than my conscious self.  Okay, so maybe I was tapping into my subconscious. But then I started seeing some spirits (ghosts) and one day a sentence popped out of my mouth, in another voice. Yes, that was weird, but by that time I wasn’t afraid. I had accepted that spirits/deities/archetypes/ancestors/however they manifest and whatever you want to call them could be contacted, and sometimes they contact you if they feel you aren’t paying attention.

I work with a Welsh deity, who seems to delight in kicking me in the ass. She helps me not be a doormat. She is, in our tradition, Dame Fate, and she will spin fate according to your actions, not by any whim of her own. I honor and work with many other deities, but she’s my Patroness. 

Side note: deity—since it’s not religion, we in Traditional Craft don’t look at deity as all-powerful creatures whom we worship. We have a working relationship with them; we are partners. We honor, but we don’t worship and we don’t give up our own power to them. You can visit The Green Man Store for more information.

Exercise 5D: Journal Reflection

What types of accusations are employed in your culture? How are these used to control people’s behavior?

Exercise 5E: Study Guide

Before moving on, ensure that you can define the following terms in your own words

  • Imitative magic
  • Contagious magic
  • Divination
  • Witchcraft in pop culture
  • Witchcraft as spirituality
  • The witchcraft accusation
  • Sorcery
  • Azande
  • Evil Eye
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Social mobility
  • Mobility Theory
  • Performance of maleficium
  • Diabolism
  • “The Malleus”
  • Heretics
  • Wicca
  • Traditional Witchcraft
  • Intent

Briefly describe the arguments and contributions of the following social scientists:

  • E.E. Evans-Pritchard
  • James Brain

Chapter 5 Works Cited

  • Brain, James. 1989 “An Anthropological Perspective on the Witchcraze.” In J. R. Brink et al., eds. The Politics of Gender in Early Modern Europe. Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal. 15-27.
  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. “The Notion of Witchcraft Explains Unfortunate Events.” in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Clarendon Press,
  • Huffman, Robin. “Witch Hunts: Early Modern Europe and Salem” Creative Commons licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
  • Stein, R.L. and Stein, P.L., 2017. The anthropology of religion, magic, and witchcraft. Routledge.

Chapter 5 Suggestions for further reading:

  • Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum, 1974. Salem Possessed; the Social Origins of Witchcraft. Harvard University Press.
  • Demos, John Putnam 1982. Entertaining Satan; Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. Oxford.
  • Magliocco, Sabina. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
  • Reis, Elizabeth. 1997. Damned Women; Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Cornell University Press.

Written by Madlen Avetyan, Robin Huffman, Laurie Solis, Griffin Ced, and Jill Weiss. Edited by Amanda Zunner-Keating, Ben Shepard, Brian Pierson, and Julie Jenkins.  Special thanks to Jennifer Campbell for curating photos, and to Melody Yeager-Struthers for organizing our resources. Student research/editing by Phillip Te. Layout by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Madlen Avetyan. Audio recording by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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Witchcraft Copyright © by Amanda Zunner-Keating; Madlen Avetyan; and Ben Shepard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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