What is Witchcraft?

Do Wiccans practice Witchcraft? It depends on who you ask. Some Wiccans will say that they do, while others don’t like to be associated with the words “Witch” or “Witchcraft” at all. Many people feel that Wicca, as a label, has more respectable and more religious connotations than Witchcraft. This is arguably the case when it comes to mainstream culture, and maybe why the name “Wicca” was so widely adopted as this spiritual movement spread during the 20th century.

However, the origins of Wicca are very much rooted in Witchcraft. In fact, Wicca’s founders—Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, Alex Sanders, and others—called themselves Witches, and referred to their practices as Witchcraft (or the shortened version, “the Craft”). Indeed, distinctions between “Wicca” and “Witchcraft” are not as clear as one might imagine, but a closer look at how these words have been used by various groups can help.


In truth, the word “witchcraft” can refer to a wide range of beliefs, traditions, and practices found in cultures across the globe, and in every period of history since the dawn of humanity. Anthropologists and other academics have used it as a catch-all term for spiritual belief systems that exist outside of the world’s dominant religions and involve a belief in phenomena that are disregarded by mainstream Western culture. These belief systems use resources from the natural world and the spirit world in the healing arts, and often approach life from an animistic perspective, taking the view that everything on Earth, including inanimate objects, is alive.

Of course, a few centuries ago, the words “witch” and “witchcraft” had only sinister meanings. This was due to the Christian Church’s desire for complete control over the European continent. Anyone who professed beliefs or engaged in practices that were outside the boundaries of Church doctrine was said to be working with “the devil” and could be executed as a “witch.” The revival of the “W” word by Gardner and others was a way of reclaiming the religious freedoms that the Church had taken away for so long. These days, many people in the Craft capitalize Witch and Witchcraft in order to distinguish their practices from the academic terminology and from the propaganda of the past.


Those who are familiar with the wider world of Witchcraft generally agree that Wicca is one form of the Craft, which is, in turn, a form of modern Paganism. In other words, “Witchcraft” is an umbrella term, under which Wicca sits along with many other types of Witchcraft. Some may have beliefs and practices that resemble or overlap with aspects of Wicca, while others are completely distinct from it.

For example, the Feri Tradition, an American form of the Craft developed in the 1930s and 40s by Victor and Cora Anderson, has its roots in traditional Vodou and Hoodoo as well as esoteric philosophies from both Western and Eastern cultures. Stregheria is an Italian-American form of Witchcraft, descended from centuries-old traditions of Italian immigrants, which didn’t become known outside of these communities until the later 20th century. A more recent tradition has come to be known as Sabbatic Craft, which draws on both ceremonial magic and traditional English folk magic, among other influences.

In addition to these more widely recognized traditions of Witchcraft, countless forms exist among the diverse range of people who practice what we might call “eclectic” Craft. These can include folk traditions from specific regions, such as Ireland and England, that managed to survive the Church’s attempted obliteration of all pre-Christian practices. There are some people who claim to have inherited Craft practices from older family members, which had been passed down through the generations since long before the development of Wicca and other 20th-century forms of Witchcraft. These hereditary traditions don’t tend to end up in books or on websites related to the Craft, as they are family-specific and generally kept quiet.


Other categories that are not Wiccan in and of themselves, but whose practitioners might also consider themselves Wiccan, include Hedgewitchery, Green Witchery, and Kitchen Witchery. All of these forms draw on traditions that predate or fall outside of the initial development of Wicca, but they are not mutually exclusive with Wicca. In fact, we are already seeing the emergence of “hybrid” forms of these paths, such as “Green Wicca” and “Kitchen Wicca.”

Many people have noted, whether with enthusiasm or dismay, that the expansion of Wicca into so many different forms and traditions is making it harder and harder to pin down just what Wicca even is. The same could be said of the entire realm of Witchcraft, a way of life that defies specific boundaries or definitions.

This lack of rigidity is arguably part of the draw for people seeking an authentic spiritual path that allows them the freedom to be who they are. It’s also why people who don’t identify as Wiccans can still learn and benefit from Wiccan resources, and why Wiccans can benefit from learning about the wider world of Witchcraft. Indeed, no matter where under the big umbrella you happen to sit, you can always learn more by getting more acquainted with those around you.


Anyone who has ever been confused about whether Wiccans are Witches, or vice versa, can rest assured that they are not alone! These two words have been used in different ways, with sometimes very different connotations, for centuries. Today, they may be considered interchangeable by some practitioners of Wicca, but completely distinct from each other by others. Some Wiccans identify as Witches, while others do not. Furthermore, there are plenty of folks whose practice of Witchcraft has elements that overlap with Wicca, but who do not identify as Wiccans.

For Wiccans who don’t consider themselves Witches, the reason is usually that they don’t practice magic, which is the part that most people think of as “Witchcraft.” They worship the Goddess and God, celebrate the turning of the Wheel of the Year, and live in harmony with nature, but they don’t seek to harness the natural energies at work in the Universe to bring about desired change in their lives. Therefore, these Wiccans are not Witches.

Interestingly enough, however, the origins of what we now know as Wicca was absolutely considered to be Witchcraft, as described by Gerald Gardner and many others who studied and practiced occult spirituality in the U.K. from the 1940s through the 1960s, where the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions were founded and developed. These pioneers of modern Witchcraft did view themselves as Witches, and in fact, the word “Wicca” was not applied to these forms of the Craft until several years later, once the practice had spread to the United States.

So where does the word “Wicca” come from? It’s actually an Old English word for “sorcerer” or “diviner,” and comes from the old Anglo-Saxon culture, where these magical skills were valued. As the English language evolved, “Wicca” eventually became “witch,” a linguistic shift that occurred sometime during the 1500s. (Interestingly, the word “Wiccan” in Old English was actually the plural form of “Wicca,” whereas today it has become an adjective to describe anything associated with the religion of Wicca.) For his part, Gardner referred to his coven members as a whole as “the Wicca,” and it’s believed that this is where the modern name Wicca evolved from.

Many who feel strongly about their self-identification as Witches will say that they are reclaiming the word from the centuries of Christian persecution when it became an accusation rather than a respected title. No one in their right mind would have identified as a Witch during those times, but thankfully we have the freedom today to do so. Nonetheless, there’s still a long way to go in terms of removing the stigma from the “W” word, which may be why so many Witches choose to capitalize it—in order to distinguish it from the fairy-tale stereotype of the “wicked witch,” or an insult aimed at grouchy women. In fact, these negative connotations are why some Wiccans choose not to identify as Witches.

So how do you know which word to use? When it comes to describing yourself, you should always go with what resonates in your heart. When it comes to other people, you can always ask them respectfully how they self-identify. Because Wicca as we know it today is such an eclectic, individualized practice (aside from Traditional Wicca of course), it’s really up to individuals to decide what they’re comfortable with when it comes to the “W” word.


To those who aren’t familiar with Wicca or Witchcraft, the word “magic” might bring various images to mind—talented illusionists who pull rabbits out of hats, sparks shooting from wands in Hollywood movies, or a cartoon character who can disappear simply by snapping his fingers. But for people who actually practice magic, the truth is much more subtle, and yet more powerful, than any pop-culture fantasy.


Back in the late 1300s, the French word “magique” entered the English language and became “magic.”  The common French definition of the word was “the art of influencing events and producing marvels using hidden natural forces.” This is a much closer characterization of magic than any modern-day dictionary will provide, but for the 21st-century Witch, it’s more accurate to say that magic is the art of consciously participating in the co-creative forces of the Universe, by directing the energies of nature to cause desired changes in one’s life. Knowing that reality is fluid and ever-changing, Witches use a variety of methods to connect their personal power with the power that governs the workings of the Universe. Through this connection, their stated intentions are manifested into physical reality.


In the Witching world, it’s very common to see the word magic spelled as “magick.” This spelling comes from the work of Aleister Crowley, a leader in the British occult movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that gave rise to the spiritual tradition that became known as Wicca. Crowley added the “k” at the end to distinguish his practice from that of the illusionists, or “stage magicians” who were becoming popular during his day.

Magic is also commonly referred to by its practitioners as “Witchcraft” or “the Craft,” terms that emphasize the art and skill involved in successfully manifesting change. Like so many aspects of contemporary Wicca and other Pagan spiritual traditions, there isn’t a single correct approach here. The choice of terminology—as well as spelling—when it comes to magic, is a personal one.


Generally speaking, the aims of magic tend to be focused on improving one’s own circumstances, primarily in the areas of wealth, love, and physical well-being. People may work specific magic for landing a better-paying job, finding a romantic partner, or a speedy recovery from an illness or injury. Another common purpose is protection, such as a spell for safe travels or the banishing of a negative influence or situation in one’s life.

Personal gain isn’t the only goal of magic, however—many Witches work for the well-being of others, whether it’s people they know or people in far-off places. For example, members of a Wiccan circle might perform a ritual to send positive energy and healing to someone’s struggling family member, or to survivors of an earthquake halfway around the globe. Many Wiccans also choose to work for spiritual development in addition to personal gain, using the Sabbats and Esbats as opportunities to reflect on their lives and plant intentions for growth or balance in the coming weeks and months.


Magical practice today can include an enormous variety of influences, traditions, and approaches. Spells, charms, rituals, incantations, dancing, potion-making, visualization, and divination are all activities that fall within the realm of magic. Some magical workings may come from time-honored traditions, while others are invented on the spot in a moment of inspiration.

Much of the magic practiced by Wiccans is at least somewhat inspired by ceremonial magic, which comes from older occult sources such as the Freemasons and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Sometimes called “high magic,” it is often quite elaborately ritualized and involves the use of symbols and gestures to direct energy toward desired aims. Other influences come from what has been called “low magic,” which includes practices from old folk traditions in Europe and elsewhere, some of which date back at least several centuries, if not longer.

Many Wiccans gravitate to magical traditions that make use of natural tools and ingredients, such as herbs, crystals, shells, etc. Knowing that the natural world is still our home, no matter how far removed from it our modern culture seems to be trying to get, these Witches pay close attention to the ongoing processes of nature—creation, destruction, change, and adaptation—and work with those energies in their magical practice. For example, a Wiccan magic spell might call for using fire to burn away an unwanted influence, or timing one’s intentions with the moment the Moon becomes full in order to maximize the effects. There truly are endless possibilities when it comes to learning and practicing magic, as long as you are willing to apply yourself seriously to the study of this fascinating art!


Not all Wiccans practice magic as part of their spiritual tradition. Those who do, however, always keep the Wiccan version of the Golden Rule (known as the Rede) in mind: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” Magic in the Wiccan faith is never to be used for anything that would cause harm to any person or other living being. Whereas some in the Craft make distinctions between what they identify as white and black magic, Wiccans are careful to be clear on the intention of any given spell. The negative intention is not only harmful to the recipient of such a working, but also to the Witch sending it out, and such magic is bound to backfire. This includes magic aimed at interfering with the free will of another person.

Furthermore, Wiccans also seek to avoid accidental harm, which can certainly happen as one’s intentions are made manifest in the physical realm. To avoid any unintentional ill-effects of their spellwork, Wiccans will usually safeguard a spell by including the phrase “with harm to none” (or something similar) before closing it out. This signals to the Universe (and reminds the Witch!) that only benign or beneficial effects are being sought through magic.

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