What Is a Witch?

I am not silly enough to suppose that everyone, or even a majority among Witches, will agree with everything I will be saying here. However, I have been thinking about this question for quite a while, and I think that some systematic consideration of the issues involved can provide some clarity.

The vast majority of Pagans in America are those who call themselves Witches. But what exactly does “Witch” mean? As linguists know, the etymology of a word often has very little to do with how the word is actually used. Instead, one must consider what people might mean when they use the word.

First, many people do still use “witch” to mean “someone who worships the Devil and/or evil and who engages in gratuitous malevolence.” Present-day Witches generally feel that such a definition of “witch” results merely from Christian politics and propaganda. True, there are now “Satanic” churches, the most prominent having been Anton LeVay’s Church of Satan and the Temple of Set, and its members do call themselves “witches,” which certainly confuses outsiders. However, as J. Gordon Melton has pointed out, the members of these churches are actually atheistic, hedonistic, and egoistic in their ethics. Pagan Witches regard Satanist witches as Christian heretics and not Pagan at all. Setting all that aside, we can look at the more positive usages of the term.

First, “witch” is often used to mean “someone who practices some form of magic.” But “folk magic” is ubiquitous, and those who practice it usually consider themselves to be devout members of the faith community around them, just with a special gift. They very rarely seem to think that their magical practice constitutes a unique religion. Nevertheless, there are quite a few such “magical witches,” and they logically must be considered part of the Craft movement.

Second, “witch” is often used to mean “someone who has and uses unusual psychic talents.” It can thus be applied to Spiritualist mediums, to clairvoyant readers, to diviners, and so on. Again, such people almost always consider them to be members of the surrounding faith community, just with a special talent, and likewise do not regard that talent as constituting a different religion.

Third, “witch” is now (and only recently) used to mean “someone who honors or worships the Old Gods” of whatever pantheon, though “Pagan” is also used with this meaning. Here the self-concept is that one is pursuing a religious path different from that of the surrounding community, but such pursuit does not necessarily involve any use of magic or psychic talents.

It is only within the Pagan movement as inspired by Gardnerian Witchcraft that these three different meanings have been bundled together into the current concept of the Pagan Witch as practicing a unique and magical religion.

At first, before the rise of the festival movement in America about 1980, a fourth meaning of “Witch” was included in this bundle: “someone who has been initiated as a member of an organized group (yes, a coven) that practices Witchcraft as a Pagan religion or as an apprentice of a master teacher of witchcraft.” Once the festivals had evolved to provide people with a way to celebrate the Wheel of the Year, and once enough “how to” books had been published to give people all the information they needed to practice the Craft as a solitary or only within their own families, joining a coven was no longer the only way to follow Wicca or a more generic form of Witchcraft as a spiritual path.

There had been some solitaries even in the 1960s and 1970s, but as a result of the festivals, around 1980 the movement divided into two categories, one being a laity, who now constitute at least 90 percent of all Witches in America, the other being those who have been initiated into and practice the Craft within a coven or equivalent group. However, a First-Degree initiate of a coven is not regarded as having any special authority or expertise, given that anyone can learn from the published books about 99 percent of what that initiate would know. Instead, there is another level of meaning.

The fifth possible meaning of “Witch” is “someone who has attained the highest level of training, ordination, and empowerment in a coven or equivalent group.” This level is generally known as the Third Degree, and those who have earned that degree collectively constitute something like an ordained clergy. Of course, this “clergy” has no way to give orders to or insist on orthodoxy or orthopraxis by the laity. Instead, the recognized leaders in the Craft and the overall Pagan movement are like the coordinators of any voluntary association. They lead by example, by persuasion, and by rewarding the efforts of the members. Hence there is some ambiguity: the terms “Witch” or “Wiccan” can refer to a lay or an initiated or an “ordained” practitioner of the Craft, and the only way to find out which meaning is intended is to ask for clarification.

It is widely (though not universally) believed in the Craft that the three-degree system was adopted by Gardner as part of his revival or reform or founding of Wicca as a modern religion. The three degrees clearly come from Masonry, as do the term “the Craft” and many details of Gardner’s initiation rituals. All the available information indicates that only one initiation was given in pre-Gardnerian witchcraft, followed by a long, usually lifelong, process of learning. One came to be considered an “Elder” or a “Magister” or a “High Priestess” when one had learned enough.
There are some widely known guidelines for how an initiate should be trained in a coven, although they are often embellished, mutated, or simply ignored, and they largely follow the pattern of higher education in European countries. The first step these days is Dedication, roughly equivalent to matriculation, that begins the traditional “year and a day” of training in the beliefs, practices, customs, etc., of that particular coven. If successful, the candidate then receives the First-Degree Initiation at the end of that year, thus becoming an actual member of the coven, a Priest or Priestess, and in that sense a Witch; this is rather like receiving the degree of Bachelor of Arts.

This first initiation then begins a second year of training, now in the more secret or private practices of the coven. At its end, the Second-Degree Initiation is rather like receiving the degree of Master of Arts. As in the medieval universities, this degree empowers one to begin teaching, and in British practice, it is considered the full ordination.

In American practice, the second initiation begins a third year of training, in even more secret and private knowledge and practices. The secrecy is not just mummery. Many Craft Elders believe that the knowledge gained in this third year could possibly be harmful to persons who lack the training needed to use it prudently. I personally believe such caution is salutary, because I do know that there are some things (not very many, but some) known by most Third-Degree Witches that have never been and, one may hope, never will be published.

Having attained this Sublime Degree, one is now entitled to be known as a High Priest or High Priestess; it is somewhat equivalent to receiving the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Being a very intellectual religion, the Craft often attracts candidates who already have a conventional Bachelor’s degree, and in getting through the three years of rigorous curriculum used by many covens, the candidate often learns far more than some people do in a Master of Divinity program in many mainstream seminaries. During the last few decades, more and more Third-Degree Priests and Priestesses have gone back to school to earn advanced degrees, in order to become pastors of Pagan churches, chaplains in the military, college professors, and internationally recognized scholars.

However, there is more to the Craft than just being a newly respectable religion for middle-class intellectuals. Tell me, you initiates, did you come to the Craft in order to supposedly work magic by reading a script? In order to take a politically correct attitude toward ecology and the environment? Or were you lured in by the Goddess, by the archetype of Aradia as the rebel against corruption and oppression? Or did you find the Craft because you were sick of being lied to by the established churches? If your primary allegiance is to searching out truth, as mine is, then you are a sixth type of Witch, for which there is not yet an established term.

That’s enough for today. I will expand on this concept of the Sixth Witch in days to come.

Reconnecting, Perhaps, with the Radical Left
How I Pray
A Note on the Creating of Religion
Prologue to a Story of Jesus and Mary
  • Jeannet

    Very nice Sudan.

    • Jeannette

      Sorry stupid auto correct. Very nice Aidan.

      • Aidan Kelly

        Yes, bugs me to have a computer that thinks it knows better than me!

  • mayarend

    I’ve never seeked for a coven and I’ve never considered myself truly pagan, as I do not worship, really, I’m sort of a pagan-atheist (or pan-theist) or something, and I’ve never looked for covens, as I wouldn’t even know where to look but I loved yourd defintions and I feel like now I want to know the third degree witches secrets lol  
    Religious secrets always drove me mad. And now knowing. I’m like you, I just want to know it all.

  • Dave Burwasser

    I had an epiphanal experience of the Goddess in 1987 – walked into Golden Gate Park a Humanist and walked out a Pagan; studied praxis with an eclectic monthly circle, including composing a ritual after an internal urging I have come to regard as the God giving me a nudge in the ribs (which He does from time to time); much later took a Wiccan initiation from a coven in a nearby town; and have acted as High Priest of my and my wife’s coven since 2002. So I guess I’ve wandered all over your map of definitions.

    I hope you’re going to get into Witchcraft in other continents and of non-European origin. American Paganism, widely construed, includes all the Caribbean syncretisms; and there’s a low-level Kulturkampf going on in Africa with “help” from Americans. All these I regard as falling under the “Witch” umbrella.

    • Aidan Kelly

      Hey, Dave, we have got to have a whole lot of mutual friends. Let’s compare notes backchannel, okay?

      • Dave Burwasser


      • Dave Burwasser

        Yikes, I don’t have your email address. You must have mine, as a blog editor.

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

           I sent it to Aidan. (Pay no attention to the Witch behind the curtain!)

          • Dave Burwasser


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1678081929 Bill Wheaton

    As someone who started alone before the 1980s and was brought into a Craft tradition right after that (where we were not really allowed to go to festivals, unsupervized :/ ) I was right on the cusp.  I’m really looking forward to this series.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       I’ve had to ask permission in the past. That said, I tend to hang with other types of Pagans at festivals. Witchy festival events merely frustrate, because there is a small part of me that truly does believe other trads “do it wrong.” I know that is silly and ridiculous, but it’s a bear I try not to poke with a stick if I can help it!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1678081929 Bill Wheaton

        Sometimes I wonder how a liberal like be wound up in such a conservative trad… which is part of the reason I circle elsewhere now.  But gods it is so damn tempting to go back … sometimes.   Those “unpublished” things …   Don’t think I have the energy for it though – not as young as I once was.

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

           I don’t circle there because I’m simply not liberal enough, I think.

          I love the trad though. It’s beautiful.

  • Pingback: Pagan Voices: Cora Post, Michael Lloyd, Aidan Kelly, Frater Barrabbas, and More!()

  • Kilmrnock

    Well i sorta started out a Celtic Pagan , some would have called me a witch , but was always polytheistic , pantheistic.I never really used that title or considered myself as such. As i learned more my path is now CR based polytheist. MY religion now is more Druidic, follower of the Tautha de Dannon . The one point i wish to make is not all pagans are witches, wiccans altho that is still the most common type of pagan .Me being an ancestral Celt my beliefs have from my beginnings in paganism leaned that way . Having been pagan for almost 30 yrs at this point i nowcall myself a ADF Druid/Sinnsreachd Warrior.Please donot forget the rest of us pagans that donot fit within the Witch/Wiccan classification .     Kilm

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.ra1 Ken Ra

    “They very rarely seem to think that their magical practice constitutes a unique religion.”  In my experience solitarys do think that they are the one true way and are hostile to any structure ( religious, ethical, social) , including the religion of Wicca. I am seeing more of a gap and more hostility between pagan magic users and the children of the Lord and Lady. We do need some structure, the question is how much and how you get and keep that authority. It would be nice if we were self policing but we are not. Bad apples just migrate across town to abuse others unhindered. Elders, HP’s do NOT talk to each other in my town.

  • RoninWolf

    Admittedly, part of me is concerned about the idea of defining witchcraft. If memory serves, FireLight on the Inciting a Riot podcast had a lively discussion with a dissident listener on this topic–he later started Project Pagan Enough. And I agree with the principles of that project, because historically the names of various peoples and groups have not been self-identified, but what others call them (often derisively) and they subsequently internalized. 
    On the other hand, I am an intellectual and I am interested not only in finding my own path in this world but hearing about and even cataloging the paths of others. I won’t call trying to fix a dictionary definition of “witch” a fool’s errand; but I will liken it to trying to nail jell-o to the wall. 
    I’m interested in what you find: are we teachers and healers? gypsies, tramps, and thieves? warriors of the Old Gods? Or are we all of the above, none of the above, and something in between altogether?

  • Deborah Bender

    There is a way in which Craft traditions do resemble American Protestant denominations. The mainstream Protestant denominations and some of the more moderate Evangelical churches are similar enough in their outlook and practices that when a church-going Protestant family arrives in a new town, if there is not a congregation of the denomination the family has been affiliated with, or if they don’t like the pastor of the local church of their denomination or have some other issue with it, the family will readily join a local congregation of some other Protestant church. Their fundamental identity is with Protestant Christianity, not with Lutheranism or the Church of Christ, and they don’t much care about denominational history or theological differences.

    Likewise, if a witch’s coven disbands or the witch moves away, and there is no other coven of that tradition within reasonable traveling distance, most witches will join a coven of whatever tradition is going.

    • http://www.usfamily.net/web/triskellion1/ Ken Ra

       It has been a long time……

  • Amilin

    i just want some direction in my spiritually confused life along with some answered questions.

  • Pingback: What Is a Witch? « WiccanWeb()