Whither the Word Witch

A friend of mine sent me a message the other day conveying outrage over the use of the word “witch” in the movie Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. She was upset because Hollywood would never dare make a movie called Hansel and Gretel: Christian Hunters, so why was it OK to hunt witches? I certainly hope we are free and clear of witch hunts in 2013, but I can’t find it in myself to get upset over the use of the word witch in (what I assume is) a bad movie. (It was dumped on the public in January, usually that’s all I need to know about a film.)

For the record, I love the word Witch. Like many other folks, I find it empowering, but I reserve its use for special occasions. In ritual I think of it sort of like Dave’s Insanity Sauce*, a few well placed drops are all that’s needed. When I want to elicit a shiver and connect with a ritual uppercut I bring out the W word. It’s also a word I use to describe myself and my own practice. I’m a Pagan who practices Witchcraft and I’m damn proud of that, but witch is a problematic word, perhaps even more so than Pagan, and that’s saying a lot.

The reason I can’t get upset about the title Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, is because “witch” has several definitions. For most people the word witch means what it always has “one that is credited with usually malignant supernatural powers; especially : a woman practicing usually black witchcraft often with the aid of a devil or familiar” (from Merriam-Webster). That definition doesn’t match-up with anyone I know who calls themselves a witch, but it’s the definition that most of the English speaking world has been using for centuries.

Until relatively recently, the word witch was nearly always used in a negative context. Witches were people who worked negative magic. The word witch usually didn’t signify a religious practice, it simply meant “bad magic user, usually female. These are the witches of fairy-tales, and some elements of pop culture. Witch is not necessarily a synonym for “magic user” either, the “negative magic” part is essential for understanding how the word witch was (and still is in some contexts) used.

A lot of folks suffer under the misconception that magic went away in the English speaking world until the formation of the Golden Dawn. Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even now all kinds of people were (and are) using magic. Early 19th Century magic users, for example, would have never thought of themselves as witches. In fact they used their magic to oppose witches. You can find examples of this in the Renaissance too. Magic was not inherently bad, but witches were people (and often supernatural specter-like entities) who made it bad. In Voodoo and Hoodoo traditions this was also true, witchcraft was nearly always thought of as a negative.

There were certainly a lot of Christians who found the use of anything magical to be a form of “witchcraft” and indeed, even today anything that people don’t understand or are fearful of sometimes gets labeled as witchcraft. (I can’t help but think of Ricky Bobby from the movie Talladega Nights screaming “Tom Cruise, help me with your witchcraft!”) Christians who used magic thought of themselves as Christians who used magic. It was just another tool in the toolbox, magic and religion were separate things.

The word began to take on more romantic connotations in the late 19th Century, with that process really picking up steam after the publication of Margaret Murray’s Witch Cult in Western Europe in 1921. Murray turned witchcraft into Witchcraft; it wasn’t just a term for negative magic (or Satan worship) but for a religion, and Murray’s Witch Religion was something that a lot of people found appealing. (For the record, a lot of Murray’s ideas were borrowed from Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière.) Murray’s book provided the impetus for people to want to call themselves Witches in the 20th Century.

My argument that Murray (and a few others) began the use of the word “Witch” in a religious context doesn’t mean that I necessarily doubt the “oldness” of some Modern Pagan traditions, it just means that I don’t think the people practicing those things would have thought of themselves as witches. Magical practices are extremely resilient, and certainly could have been passed down in families for generations (and you can see this with some centuries old cunningcraft books), but use of magic doesn’t mean someone self identifies as a witch. That’s an important distinction to remember.

In the 1950′s Gerald Gardner began to use the word Witchcraft to describe Wiccan religion (or as Gardner spelled it in those early days, Wica). Though it’s hard to be certain how much Gardner actually believed in deities, I feel comfortable in my belief that Gardner was using the word Witchcraft to describe a religious practice. The books are called Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), and they aren’t spell books. Gardner’s version** of Witchcraft is a practice and a faith. As an initiated Gardnarian Witch I think of what I do as a religious practice.

I bring this up because I often run into people who get upset when Witch is used as a synonym for Wiccan. What I do falls under the umbrella of British Traditional Witchcraft, and in my practice I use Wicca and Witchcraft to mean the same thing. As language is a living thing, I do believe that the word witch is evolving to mean “empowered magic user” in many circles. Pop culture is full of beautiful young women practicing magic and calling themselves witches. It almost always seems void of a religious center (though a lot of the trappings do resemble things we see in Modern Witchcraft the religion), but that’s fine. I know people who call themselves Christian Witches because they’ve begun to associate the use of positive magic with the word witch while still going to church, etc. I’m sure we all know kitchen witches too, people who seem to put magic into everything they touch, definitely witches too.

Words are capable of several different definitions, and the dictionary I quoted earlier contains about five. When using the word witch I try to be careful about speaking in absolutes (and this comes up often in my writing and speaking). When someone tells me that “Witch” and “Wiccan” aren’t synonyms they can both be right and wrong. If I choose to use them that way I feel completely justified in doing so, as they are synonyms in my own personal practice. I also realize that not everyone uses the word witch exactly like I do, which is completely fine. I don’t own the definition of the word anymore than you do. I’m perfectly comfortable with a word having multiple meanings, and I’m reasonably certain that we are all smart enough to understand the context.

That brings me back to Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Words have multiple meanings and the “witches” being hunted by Hansel and Gretel aren’t the witches that make up my community. Now if Hansel and Gretel were to start hunting goddess worshippers who aren’t out to hurt anyone, then we would have a problem. At that point they are attacking a particular religious belief system and that’s certainly bollocks. With the word witch many of us are embracing a word with centuries of tradition and baggage behind it. We cherish it because we find it empowers and speaks to us, but you have to accept the good with the bad. No one is trying to tar and feather Modern Witchcraft, they are just using a definition of the word witch that’s been around long before we were on the scene.

*Not a paid endorsement, though I do like the hot sauce.

**I write that very much with the belief that Gardner was initiated into something in 1939.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • lucystrawberry

    Wicca is a religion whose members may or may not practice witchcraft.

    Witchcraft is a magical art whose practitioners may or may not practice Wicca, or religion at all.

    Many Wiccans are Witches. Many Witches are Wiccans.

    It is easy to see how many get them confused, but they aren’t the same thing.

    There are simply too many variants of Witchcraft traditions for me to feel comfortable with using the word interchangeably with Wicca.

    A Feri Witch is not a Wiccan. A Witch who practices Stregheria is not a Wiccan. Hedgecraft is not Wicca. These traditions do _not_ subscribe to the Wiccan Rede and are not expressly duotheistic which I think clearly places them outside of the Wiccan system.

    Now, are many modern Witchcraft traditions heavily inspired by Gardner? Absolutely. Do we all probably have more in common than different? Most likely. Would I probably know how to conduct myself within and how to use the tools of most witchcraft circles? Most Likely. But that doesn’t make them the same thing.

    I think as the community grows Wicca will no longer be the only option for people interested in Witchcraft.

    So, while you are probably safe calling anyone within Wicca doing magic a witch…I’d think before you call someone outside of Wicca doing magic a Wiccan.

    • http://twitter.com/Panmankey Jason Mankey

      “It is easy to see how many get them confused, but they aren’t the same thing.”

      I’m making the argument that no one is getting anything confused, that words simply have more than one meaning. I’m not going to disagree with your definitions of the word, I just don’t think they are the only definitions. I try very hard not to “write in absolutes” because I don’t think they apply to words like Witch and Pagan, words that have varying interpretations and definitions.

      I would never claim that a Feri Witch is Wiccan (which is why I use the phrase “British Traditional Witchcraft” in the piece), but in certain traditions I think the words are used interchangeably.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Labels are of most use to outsiders. I spend very little time self labelling – I would rather focus on simply being.

    That said, when talking to someone outside of your own faith/tradition/path, works need to have a clear concise meaning.

    The reason so many people get upset about the ‘witch hunter’ thing is because one of the most common reactions to the statement “I am a witch” is “So, you believe in the Devil, then?” (I find this also is a standard response to self labelling as Pagan, too.)

    As such, any portrayal of witches as evil diabolists harms the pursuance of a positive image of ‘witch’.

    Of course, this struggle is inevitable when people take a term that is traditionally associated with malevolent individuals and actions. Can we really blame the mainstream for their response when they have centuries of usage to draw upon for their definition whilst the more positive definition is, perhaps, less than a century old?

    As to Gardner’s religion, when I first got into Paganism (big umbrella), I read that Gardner intended to create a ritual magic system and it was only after the influence of Doreen Valiente that it became functional as a religion. How much truth is there in this, and could that be cause for some confusion of the matter?

    • JasonMankey

      I included a link to that idea from Chas Clifton’s blog, and it’s an interesting argument. Gardner doesn’t write extensively about deity in his books, but he does write about it. I’m sure that at least by the late 50′s the people he was initiating thought they were entering a religious practice.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Valiente was involved in Wicca since the early 50s, though.

        I am not disputing what Wicca became, just questioning whether what I initially learned about its original intended use was true.

  • Aine

    I find the complaints whenever a new witch movie comes out to be…tiring, honestly. Modern witches don’t own the word, and to act like it only has purely religious definitions is also dishonest (which seems to be where the anger comes from?).

    (On a related note – I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve heard not all witches in the movie are portrayed as horrible evil awful vermin. So….?)

    • Kilmrnock

      But in one quote for one of the lead Characters from the film , Gretal i believe she says ” i don’t care kill them all”

      • ValkyrieSorceress

        I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I think this would cause most people to view that character in the negative light.

  • Kilmrnock

    I agree w/ most if not all of what has been said here in the article and the comments . We had a discussion in one of the FB rooms about this . I fully understand all the cultural baggage that goes with the term Witch . But i am also a Warrior and CR , so this stuff doesn’t effect me directly , altho my wife is a Eclectic Polytheistic Witch . I feel an almost knee jerk reaction to this stuff connected to a desire to defend/protect her.Also many of my pagan freinds are Wiccans or Witches of one strip or another . The biggest thing that bothers me about such films is the writers/ studios willingness to add to or change these stories. Van Helsing is a prime example , the film altho a bit cool , the origonal character never saw the the Wolfman or Frankenstien . I have no real problem with the origonal stories , in the origonal context , just when the media adds and changes things . We pagans well know that the media can inform popular opinion , Bewitched is one example . A major slur , Warlock that was once fighting words is now commonly used as meaning a male Witch. Even stated as such in modern Dictionaries . The film Bell , Book and Candle that The TV show Bewitched is tailored from , along with Bewitched saw to that .Look it up , worlock is old english for Oath Breaker , in a society where ones Honor was quite important being called a Warlock was a major offence , one that needed to be dealt with .I just don’t like seeing the media make things harder for poeple i know and love .

  • http://www.miraselena.com/ Heather Greene

    I’ve been tossing around writing an article about the word “witch” for quite some time. It’s very problematic from my standpoint, in public relations. Its a fun word, it a powerful word. But its a word so weighted with baggage.

  • ValkyrieSorceress

    This is a great article. I also feel drawn to the title witch, but consider myself of the wiccan religion. I don’t get offended about the way Hollywood uses the word Witch, why bother? It won’t change, and it doesn’t matter. There is a shift of perception of late, due in part to books like “Wicked” and the “Harry Potter” series. People are more open to seeing that Witch isn’t always a bad connotation.

    • Derrythe

      I think the main reason the developed world doesn’t look down so much on witches is because we realize that actual magic doesn’t really happen, people can’t really cast spells and have them actually work in any real way, aside from as a psychological effect of those who believe that it does work. Much like rabbits feet and placebos.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=751691973 Damon Leff

    “I certainly hope we are free and clear of witch hunts in 2013, but I can’t find it in myself to get upset over the use of the word witch in (what I assume is) a bad movie.” Jason Mankey

    Like you, Jason, I won’t get upset about the erroneous use of terms or terminology in films. Certainly never when the genre of said film is clearly intended NOT to be perceived as non-fiction. The characters (and story) are intended to be fictitious. Fiction is not required to be accurate, fair or just, simply to entertain.

    Having said that however, I must point out that your assumption that “we are free and clear of witch hunts in 2013″ is naively optimistic. I mean that in the best possible way. Accusations of witchcraft do unfortunately continue to this day in many parts of the world, notably throughout countries in Africa, in India, and more recently against children in the U.K. and central Europe. The United Nations considers the rising global refugee crisis as a result of witchcraft accusations seriously.

    I should emphasize that the victims of accusation globally do not self-identify as Witches.

    If you’d like to explore this in greater detail, please visit our advocacy against witch-hunts webpage at http://www.paganrightsalliance.org/30_days.html

    If you feel moved to object to modern witch-hunts (every bit as gruesome and tragic as historical witch-hunts), please do support this advocacy by signing our petition at http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Stop_Witch_Hunts/

    and by following our campaign’s progress this year on Facebook.

    Please do write about modern witch-hunts. Your silence on this continuing human rights tragedy won’t help to prevent someone else being murdered on suspicion of witchcraft alone.

    • http://twitter.com/Panmankey Jason Mankey

      Thanks Damon. I can often be a bit glib, and it’s important to remember that there still are people being persecuted and killed due to accusations of “witchcraft” in various parts of the world.

      • http://twitter.com/skullaria skullaria

        That’s right, and it happens every day, usually to the vulnerable. It was in the news just today, to a woman who was drug from her home, tortured, tied, and burned to death on a garbage pile. If they had not said “all witches are evil” and if people were not referring to witch hunts as being fun all over twitter because of it, I might not have ever written this post. I don’t like to ruin anyone’s fun, and I LOVE fairy tales, and would normally go see any movie remotely about any of them – but this is beyond the pale to me.

        • Derrythe

          I would think the best way to combat these witch burnings is to educate people. When a society realizes that people can’t apply curses on others, or turn them to frogs, that there is no evil eye, or love potions etc. It usually (sadly not always) takes the wind out of the sails of those who go around burning people for doing things they can’t actually do.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Curses do get applied, though and love potions are big money.

            Their efficacy may be disputed, but so can that of prayer.

  • Rebecca

    Forgive me those who enjoyed the movie, but I thought it was one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in my entire life. I was very sorry I’d gone, sorry to have lost the time to it, sorry to have chosen it over any other movie that day, sorry to have lost the money to it or to have seemed to support it with my dollars. I could pick apart so many things about it, but that would just give more time to it. What were those writers thinking? It was awful. (Speaking for myself.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001024933630 Tammi Johnson-Warren

    Many mostly find the movies catch phrase upsetting. “They say not all witches are evil. I say burn them all.” Believe it or not i have heard fundamentalists say something very similar not so long ago.

  • Windsong Tempest

    Thank you for this beautiful article. I remember seeing the preview for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and not being necessarily offended, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frustrated by it. However, I am not personally offended by the movie, and I was trying to explain why to my husband when I found your article. It flawlessly describes my feelings on the matter and the reasons behind those feelings. They aren’t targeting Witches through this movie– they are simply using a different definition than the spiritual/religious practice of Witchcraft, etc. I must admit though, it wouldn’t hurt for more awareness of the word Witch and how many people today define themselves as one. I completely understand why your friend is upset, but I agree with you– this movie is not to be taken personally. Hollywood is just ignorant of the other definitions of Witchcraft and the people who identify themselves as a Witch.
    I am a practicing Pagan who is currently exploring in more detail my beliefs and such. I have found that not only am I Pagan, but I am an Eclectic Witch, meaning I take bits and pieces from other branches of Witchcraft and create a practice that perfectly suits me (Hedge Witchery and Green Witchery specifically).
    Thank you for this. I will be sharing your article with my friends.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I wish that we were beyond witch hunts, but the truth is they never stopped, just changed locations over the centuries. I recall a murder case right here in the United States of a couple that was murdering young men that they believed to be witches. Also as Damon Leff points out there are still thousands of people today being killed for being accused of being Witches, or beaten tortured or forced to flee their homes an villages, including young children, and he has been involved with other Pagans in South Africa trying to get the government, the media to do something about stopping the ever present ongoing witch hunts in South Africa. I have done interviews on this for several years in ACTION.

  • Samson

    As a witch, NOT a wiccan, I AM offended. It’s not the meaning of the word that bothers me; I know what I am. I don’t consider what I do a “religious” practice. What bothers me is this movie saying it’s okay to kill witches. I don’t care WHAT anyone’s particular description of witch is being used. I doubt that if the old witch-hunts came back in vogue, anyone would stop to ask if you were a “good” witch or a bad one. This movie promotes bad thinking… PRIOD!!

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