On the Necessary, Ineluctable Otherness of Witchcraft

Hello, beautiful creatures.

A conversation came up recently, initiated by the redoubtable Cyndi Brannen of Keeping Her Keys, centered around the question of what it is that makes witchcraft, witchcraft… or, to reframe the question slightly, what the defining characteristics of witchcraft are, as differentiated from other forms of magic.

It’s a fascinating question, but it’s also one I’ve written about a few times before1. This time around, I figured I’d just hold my tongue and let other folks take the lead, but Jason Mankey, my editor here at Patheos, offered me the oblique challenge of saying something on the subject that I haven’t already said. I’m a sucker for creative challenges, and even more of a sucker for talking about witchcraft, so here we are.

So, what makes what we do “witchcraft,” and not some other thing? In one of those earlier posts, I wrote that “witchcraft is what witches do.” That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s also kind of a circular argument. Moreover, it’s a bit facile on its own. After all, I’m a witch, and I do all kinds of things that aren’t necessarily what I’d call “witchcraft.” I binge-watch shows on Netflix, I do crossword puzzles, I spend too much time fretting on social media.

Is that witchcraft? Of course not.

Where’s the line, then? Is it in practicing spirituality, or magic? I’ve sat dhikr with a Sufi tariqah, taken communion in both Episcopal and Gnostic churches, received the blessing of a Buddhist priest, and performed a seemingly-endless series of perambulations around the perimeter of a Golden Dawn lodge2.

Is that witchcraft? Well… no.

Is witchcraft a set of beliefs? A set of practices? A black-handled knife, a cord, some candles, a chalice? A goddess, a god, both, neither? Dancing naked around a bonfire with a stang and a handful of rusty nails? Meditating in an Anthropologie wrap skirt with a smudge-stick and a handful of crystals? Any of them, all of them, none of them? Is it still witchcraft if I don’t have skulls littering my altar, or if I don’t have an altar at all?

Or is witchcraft something else altogether, something not reducible to techniques, trappings, dogma, or details?

In another of those previous pieces I mentioned, I suggested that the witch is in many ways synonymous with the figure of the Other, “the one who calls into question everything we believe we know and understand about our world, our lives, ourselves.” The witch is the one “who does the work of being in relationship, garnering power and wisdom from the outer margins of the acceptable, making their will manifest to better a world which would just as soon see them burned alive.”

It follows logically from that thought that there’s an inherent Otherness to witchcraft: a queerness, a strange apartness, a fey beyondness which encompasses all things and belongs to none of them. Witchcraft is uncanny and dangerous, but also powerful and compelling, precisely because it’s set apart from the known and accepted. Witchcraft is the path between the flickering campfires and the floodlit storefronts into the shadowy world beyond the boundaries, the places where fear and desire dance with knowledge and understanding. Witchcraft is the art of walking into the twilight spaces where Otherness begins, brushing against that strangeness and garnering what is needful, and bringing it back to work its strangeness and changes in the daylit world.

To that end, any tool or technique can be gainfully employed, if it’s used with skill and will. Witches might work ceremonial magic or attend Catholic masses, might dance ecstatically or meditate, might lay Tarot spreads or cast runes, might scry by birdflight or by traffic patterns, all as part of their witchcraft. The means aren’t important. What matters are the work, the will to carry it out, and the Otherness which makes it all possible. Without it, neither a shelf of goatskin-bound grimoires nor a closet of astrology-patterned scarves will hide the hollowness of your magic. With it, you can bend reality with a thrift-store kitchen knife and a birthday candle, or a tree branch and some spit.

So, what makes witchcraft, witchcraft? Otherness.

And that’s my final answer.

Until next time, dear ones, tread softly. ♥

It’s just a hole in a hedge. What could possibly go wrong? (Photo by the author.)

  1. If you’re curious, I wrote about it in “Stations of the Day: Encompassing the Indefinability of Witchcraft,” “On Being a Witch: The Relationships at the Heart of the Craft,” and “Marks of the Witch: The Bend, the Need, and the Will.”
  2. In red socks, no less.

___________________________

WHAT IS WITCHCRAFT? WHAT MAKES SOMETHING WITCHCRAFT? More Thoughts by Patheos Pagan Writers

What Makes it Witchcraft? by Martha Kirby Capo at The Corner Crone

What Is A Witch? Defining Witchcraft For Both Past And Present Day by Scarlet Magdalene at Tea Addicted Witch

The Ever Changing Face of Witchcraft by Ian Chambers at By the Pale Moonlight

What Makes Witchcraft . . . . Witchcraft? by Cyndi Brannen at Keeping Her Keys

Defining Witchcraft: General and Personal by Morgan Daimler at Irish-American Witchcraft

What Makes it Witchcraft? by Kelden at By Athame and Stang

Witchcraft Has No Gatekeepers by Jason Mankey at Raise the Horns

About Misha Magdalene
Misha Magdalene (Seattle) is a multi-classed, multi-geek, multi-queer witch and sorcerer with a degree in gender studies and a slightly odd sense of humor. They're an initiate of multiple lines of traditional witchcraft, including the Anderson Feri tradition and Gardnerian Wicca, and have also been known to dabble recklessly in both modern ceremonial magic and grimoiric goetia. They've been blogging since 2001, negotiating the online world since 1987, playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1981, and listening to weird music since birth. They live on occupied Duwamish territory in the Pacific Northwest with their polymath partner, their precocious daughter, far too much coffee-making apparatus, and a long-suffering bamboo plant named Smitty. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram, or lurking somewhere around the Seattle area, usually hiding behind a cup of coffee. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Leslie Ana Victor

    Meaning
    of witchcraft, etymologically speaking

    I am want,when confused by the language, to look to the roots. As we
    all know the intellect of wo/man developed with language as the thing
    that sets us apart, even more than our thumbs. But if we are to look
    at the roots of words as a saddle on the horse of human intellectual
    development it can often buck the meaning we intended, thought we
    intended, or simply do not know the intent at all. To
    me this is imperative when ever discussing what I mean to say, being
    one who is more often than not misunderstood.

    The subject of the multi-blog discussion between Cyndi Brannen, Kelden
    and yourself about “What is Whitchcraft” was just such a
    etymological and intellectual pie. Checking my usual sources it would
    seem that the Germanic meaning of witch is etymologically lost to
    time, which when you think about it is deliciously appropriate, but
    also fits, owing to the early tribes of Europe not being big on
    taking notes. There are a series of known unknowns ( or
    guesses) such as weihen which means ‘consecrate,’ wigle
    meaning ‘divination’ and the root weg which means to be, “strong or
    lively.” There is also wit which meant ‘to see’ and here one
    can see where the horse starts to canter.

    The old German roots of craft or Kreft actually means ‘strength’
    or ‘skill’ and in the Old Norse kraptr it is rooted as
    “strength’ or ‘virtue.’ It brings to mind the image of the
    Strength tarot card with its image of the young girl taming the lion.
    A card whose meaning is about taking on uncertainty; of controlling
    ones wits in the face of the unknowable. I have personally always
    wondered about the how and why of that image in the first place, what
    is the process that brings her to have the trust and control of her
    wild counterpart? But I digress.

    To bring it together, witchcraft’s root meaning is to have the strength
    and skill to consecrate; to make or declare sacred. In this vane it
    would seem to imply that it is a knowledge set apart by a person who
    is strong enough to create a holy or spiritual experience. I should
    note that the word victim comes up in the etymology. The word victim
    means, “someone killed in a sacred rite, ceremony or ritual.”
    There is plenty of evidence, in all religious experience that a
    ritual death makes it more potent. There are plenty of chickens and
    lambs and people who can attest to the powerlessness of a group when
    faced with the “strength” of one to take a life in the name of
    the sacral rites. This to me is the real hocus-pocus, however, and
    is safe to say that any individual who steps out of the control of
    the community at large is considered other, or classically, a witch.
    And these people who find themselves adrift or seeking a place to
    call home gravitate towards the old ways. The meaning then seems to
    be about not being told what to believe or think or feel or worship,
    but how to have the fortitude to find these things through personal
    process. What is sacred to one is not the same as another, witchcraft
    is more personal. Maybe it should be changed to which-craft. As in
    the words we speak, it is a series of evolutionary steps, which in
    the end means, well, it means what ever you need it to mean.

  • MacKenzie Drake

    Yes, this. Not all magics possess Otherness, but it is this quality that makes witchcraft distinct. Reading Astrea’s article on Non-Traditional Witchcraft reminded me of Dion Fortune’s _Psychic Self-Defense_ , which I read as a wet-eared witchling. For all her mastery of the rules and tools of Ceremonial Magic, Fortune and her contemporaries were scared shitless of The Other personified as a mean-minded washerwoman who had access to their laundry and a will to harm. We who are queer, poor, mad, disabled, and/or not pink embody the potential of witchcraft, whether we choose to use it or not. IMO, it’s damned well time for us to use it.
    Love and power, dear heart