This is a Big topic… Having spent my first couple of decades as a Pagan occultist closely identifying with the term I remain bemused by the shifting boundaries around the word ‘witch’. I’ve spend a little time on the subject, and to date my thoughts are in multiple articles, but I can’t see reaching any firm conclusions, because it’s all so very confused in the magical culture right now. ‘Witch’ is being tugged at by Neopagan religionists, neogothic occultists, folk-magic charmers and spellbinders and by reconstructionist euro-shamans. Almost anyone who wants to participate in its coolness devises a rationale that allows them to use it. What makes this word so cool, and why do so many types of modern magical practitioners want to own it? For the witchy month of October I’m going to try to edit my several articles into a more coherent thesis, though again I doubt that definitive answers can be reached. We’ll start with the easy part, a look at the pre-modern (i.e. before mid-20th century) history of the word and concept.
Etymologically ‘witch’ derives from roots in Old English and older Germanic sources referring directly to magical practice, dealing with the dead and even with priesthood. Posited IndoEuropean roots incude *weg2 – strength, power, and its immediate derivative *weg-yo, which produces the proto-germanic *wikkjaz – necromancer. These roots produce the well-known Old English word wicce, a magic-user. *Weg-yo also directly produces ‘wicked’ suggesting that the word ‘witch’ is infected from the beginning with notions of social danger. The term is used neutrally in some sources, such as references to midwives, but the primarily Christian sources for Old English tend to use the term to translate Biblically proscribed practices such as ‘necromantia’. The Latin ‘augur’ – a priestly diviner – is also translated ‘wicce’.
The Old English word wicce is first recorded used in context of Pagan religion. Of course we have no Germanic mythic or ritual material written down by Pagans (nor any Celtic). Some of the first references to wicce or wicca we find are from Roman church laws and proclamations. I found:
Some men are so blind that they bring their offering to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings, as the witches teach, and are unwilling to understand how stupidly they do or how that dead stone or that dumb tree might help them or give forth health when they themselves are never able to stir from their place.
These plainly refer to ‘wiccan’(pl) as religious, as well as magical practitioners – there’s little functional difference between religion and magic in many traditional cultures.
So we have a term that refers plainly to the practice of those specialized spiritual arts that have been called ‘magic’ – vision-journeying, spirit-contact and alliance, knowledge of the powers of natural things, and the skill to do the little manipulations of influence that are called ‘spells’ – all inside the envelope of polyvalent traditional Pagan religion. While the etymology doesn’t connect ‘wicce’ with wisdom, the same sorts of spiritual specialists were often referred to as ‘wizards’ and other terms drawn from roots meaning ‘wise’. In these origins we find the idea of witch as priestess or religious functionary in a tribal polytheism, as a community spiritual professional.
The Witch Figure In Paganism
We are familiar with the medieval and renaissance image of the witch as rebellious evil-doer, using arcane powers to trouble the common people. What many Pagans may not realize is that the archetype of the night-riding dangerous (female) magic-user comes directly from Pagan roots, with no help needed from the new church. The Bacchic cult in Rome displays much of what became associated with the later Witches’ revels – drinking, dancing, song and illicit sexual fun, all under the goat-horned mask of the God. Greek culture feared a nearly mythological class of women who worshipped the Underworld Gods, practiced abortion and worked charms and spells. There is very little evidence (but not none) that such people existed, but they are common figures in the popular literature of the time. Of course the practice of spellbinding and divination as a craft was common enough, but while such lower-class magicians might be scoffed at by the educated they weren’t equated with the mythic or literary notions of the ‘strega’ in Roman times.
In northern Europe the Germanic influence provided another stream of boundary-breaking spirit sorcerers. Continental terms translated into English as ‘witch’ include the German hexe, Dutch heks and Old High German hagzusa, all derived from roots meaning ‘hedge-rider’. Germanic tradition records various categories of magic-users, including female seers and spellbinders, male singers and spirit-masters. Many writers would like to find a connection between Odin as the strange, wandering sorcerer’s god and the later folk-Christian notion of the ‘devil’ with who witches must consort. Other aspects of the later witch myth, such as ‘familiars’, the Wild Ride, flight on staves or animals and the connection with the werewolf all find models in Germanic Pagan lore.
Once again, all the material we have in writing from northern Europe comes from the beginning of the Christian era, and this makes it difficult to tell how much these practices were associated with a figure that might be called a ‘witch’ in pre-Christian society. More specifically, it seems unlikely that there was a Pagan ‘witch-cult’ as such. Rather the various Gods, beliefs and practices that became associated with the ‘witch’ seem to have been distributed in the many varieties of common Pagan religious practice. Certainly there might have been magical practitioners leading socially unusual lives, in the forest or on the edges of the human commons. The supernatural, powerful-but-dangerous ‘witch’ monster may have been a mythological memory of such strange holy persons in Pagan times as in later Christian ones.
Historically the word witch immediately passes from Pagan cultures into the hands of the literate church, which used the term to translate the various forbidden practices in their scripture. The text of the Bible has little use for the work of sacred images, divination and conjury that played a part in most non-Biblical religions, and the term ‘witch’ took on the connotation of daemonic (and demonic) polytheism, dangerous and illicit practices, and eventually even of opposition to human good and survival. Memories (and in various times and places, actual survivals) of the pleasant revels and stranger sorceries of Pagan religion were grafted with monks’ psycho-sexual fears to produce the sort-of Malleus Maleficarum archetype of the ‘Satanic Witch’.
Interestingly, I know of no example of an artifact or text of ‘medieval Satanism’. When the Church actually persecuted Pagan remnants they look like Pagan religion and not secret sorcery sects, though we may imagine a tendency among the peasants to conflate their old merry gods with the ‘devil’ of the new theology. It may be that certain ancient practices survived into the new Christian mythology. Of course that same mythology calls Satan the spirit of sorcery and magic; thus it makes sense that what the village inherits as sorcery and magic must be of… Satan.
In any case by the time we reach the early modern period the word witch has come to have nearly exclusively negative connotations and it’s difficult to find an example of a magical practitioner – either folk or scholastic – who will own the word. The fantasies of the Church finally begin to be enacted during the late renaissance, with the ‘black masses’ of the French court and the diabolism of modern folk societies such as the Horseman’s Word. Even then we have no example of someone plainly saying, “yes, we are ‘witches’” – at least not outside of the context of a trial.
The Cunning Craft
It is worth mentioning the commercial and barter trade in magical arts that continued through this period. In most European cultures magical arts services were provided by (semi-) skilled practitioners who ‘set up shop’ either formally or privately. In English these have come to be called by the British term “Cunning-folk”, ‘cunningman’ being the original usage. Such ground-level magic providers might be full-time sorcerers, but were as often working folk (or clergy) with a special skill for sale.Astrology might be their front-end, or they might be known as having good healing charms for beast or human, or have a knack for finding thieves. In addition they would offer divinations, the finding of lost objects, consultation of spirits, and especially the turning aside of the curses and thefts of ‘witches’.
There are a number of well-preserved books filled by the hands of working cunningmen. These literate examples draw directly on the published magical books circulating in their time. Paracelsus, Agrippa and the grimoires are copied next to astrological and palmistry treatises and the magical uses of the psalms. What is entirely absent is any sense of non-Christian, animist or preserved Pagan or Satanic cult. While there are occasional formulae for summoning spirits of the land (often for purposes of treasure-hunting) there is no single rite of Satanic worship, nor preserved Orphic orgy-formula, nor a liturgy for a witches ‘sabbath’. The mythic basis of cunning craft is almost entirely Christian, if less-than-orthodox.
To your author this means that the Cunning-Folk were not ‘witches’. Looking back over our outline, they are not hold-outs of the magico-religious work of a defeated old religion. They were not worshippers of the mythological opponents of the Christian spirits (though those were called on in formulas that in no way resemble worship). They were not even romantic restorationists. They were magic-users, surely, but I think that is not enough to fill all the categories of the word ‘witch’.
Equally Christian were the countryside ‘charmers’. In this non-literate end of the tradition specific healing or other charms would be passed from one person to the next down the generations. These lower-status folk practitioners were in greater danger of being accused of ‘witchcraft’, and their illiteracy might conceal almost anything. However all the records and later attempts at collection seem to show a Christian core to their conjuring.
Commercial cunning-craft continued into the late 19th century, eventually being sanitized (largely by anti-fraud statutes) into ‘fortune tellers’, etc. The advance of both scientistic education and efficacious scientific medicine reduced the need for traditional magical services. As to whether and how many cunning-practitioners were aware of or part of the ‘witchcraft’ revival in the mid-20th century, we have no evidence at this time. Certainly all kinds of folk-magic types became interested in the idea of Ancient Cults, and added elements even of Gardner’s or Cochrane’s rites to their own practice. Apart from such possibilities we have no evidence that cunning-craft involved pacts with ancient Pagan spirits.
Early Modern Rethinking
So we come into the late 19th and early 20th century with this layered notion of the ‘witch’. The witch is Pagan sorcerer and keeper of wisdom, she can heal or she can curse, and she might choose to work for fair pay. They might be members of secret sects or cults, where they broke the rules of society and reveled as they pleased.
It is worth mentioning that the commercial and barter trade in magical arts continued through this period. Even as literacy and skeptical education became more widespread science became better able to satisfy the need for medicine, and real policing was invented. The more commonplace services of the cunningfolk became less in demand, and they devolved into mere ‘fortune tellers’. It seems reasonable to think that some inheritors might have found their way into self-defined Witchcraft in the 20th century, but no particular example has come to light.
As the renaissance merged into early modern times, the witch was more and more a part of the ideological past. The effort made by European society to rise above the superstition of the witch-hunts reduced the ‘witch’ to a figure of ridicule among educated people in the 18th and 19th century, even as the practice of folk-magic by semi-educated conjurers and cunning folk remained a thriving trade. However the 19th century saw a new angle on the interpretation of the witch. Led by such writers as Jules Michelet in the mid 19th century, and giving inspiration to early 20th century writers like Leland and Murray, the witch came to be seen as a desperate or heroic rebel against the oppressive system of feudal state and church. The witch became the socialist peasant, worshipping ‘Satan’ (the half-remembered Old Gods) to spit in the church’s eye, or keeping their Old Ways in spite of persecution. This romantic, politicized portrayal would be directly influential on the appearance of practical and self-admitted witchcraft in the 20th Century.