Wiccans and "witches"

It is now considered common knowledge that “witches do not worship the devil.” By this it is meant that

(1) “Witches” refers to Wiccans.
(2) Wiccans do not worship the Devil.
(3) Therefore, witches do not worship the Devil.

But why are Wiccans witches?

Every Halloween we hear Wiccans complain about the stereotypes and “misconceptions” of witches, as if these stereotypes referred to them. Well, who is saying they do? As far as I know, Wiccans are referred to as witches solely because they refer to themselves as witches. But if the stereotypes do not apply, then in what sense are they witches?

For centuries, the English word witch referred to evil-doing creatures of Macbeth, James’ Demonologie, and the Maleus Malleficarum. When someone said “witch,” everyone knew what was meant.

Then along come the Wiccans who tell us “real” witches are not like that. Rubbish, I say! Such witches may or may not really exist, but saying “real” witches aren’t like the popular “misconception” is like saying it is a popular misconception that unicorns only have one horn.

There comes a point where you have to say, no, you are just misusing the word.

Many people. Say … the pope, who ain’t happy with New Age religions. To many fundie types, anyone who casts spells and doesn’t worship Christ (regardless of whether or not they worship the Devil) is Evil and in league with the Devil, whether they admit it or not.

But you’re right–the self-applied “witch” label is fraught with problems. I don’t have my copy of Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon handy, but the debate over the rightness of the word “witch” in neopagan circles has been going on for a long time.

On the one hand, neopagans don’t fit the Chirstian connotation of “witch” as “devil worshipper,” so they should drop the “w” word in order to avoid any problems.

On the other hand, pagan “heretics” who worshiped non-Judeo-Christian deities were labeled “witches” (wrongly, but still labeled so) and killed by Christians for their beliefs during the Middle Ages. So some feel that they should wear the “witch” label as a badge of pride, in memory and honor of those who died for similar beliefs. (It’s a bit like the gay community turning the epithet “queer” on its head and appropriating it for their own use.)

Meanwhile, there is the very real fact that the word “witch” is pregnant with meaning and conveys an air of mystery and power that many neopagans want to cultivate. The wise old woman, keeper of arcane secrets, communing with spirits, harnessing the forces of nature to her will … you get the idea. So there’s a romance associated with the word “witch,” and much of its power is bound up in the unease it generates in people.

So, some are for the word, some are against it, and the community, by its nature, is so informal, shifting, and utterly without any hierarchy that you’ll never get a final answer one way or the other.

Thanks, toadspittle.

Any citation for this? (I know that it is a common claim among some Wiccan adherents, but I have never seen any examples.)

My own guess is that when the followers (particular and general) of Aleister Crowley decided to use the word witch to identify themselves, they just made a huge Public Relations blunder from which they have not recovered.

The “folk etymology” among some new witches is that the word originally meant a “wise woman.” However, the OED says otherwise, with every single early reference being to a person engaging in sorcery and having an explicitly negative connotation.

Sorry i overlooked this back when it was posted, tomndebb. I try always to respond to posts made in threads that I start. Thanks for the OED ref. - TG

Well, because many Wiccans, pagans, and otherwise do face largely hostile reactions from a lot of people, and there are instances of violence occasionally. Distancing the terms from that stereotype.

Persoanlly, I think it is a silly word to use.

It would be a silly word to use were it not for the fact that we (some of us at any rate) are explicitly saying to orthodox Christianity “we believe ourselves to be that which you tend to condemn as evil, and we find it holy”.

tomndebb, it is my understanding, based on Trevor-Roper, that the European witch torturing and killing was not something directed in a highly specific way at either a) brand-name, ‘authentic followers of the folk religion Wicca’ or b) eclectically assorted loosely defined generic followers of folk religions of various sorts. And to be sure, it was at times directed at people who were most certainly Christian (especially Catholics when Protestants were locally in charge and vice versa) as well as older women with little in the way of supportive/connected family but who had land or other desirable assets, or women who practiced folk medicine and midwifery.

But mostly it was directed in a broad sense against whoever was most vulnerable to appearing different, odd, unusual, and therefore perhaps distinguishable from the rest of the community.

Therefore: b’) Eclectic followers of folk religions, along with other freethinkers/agnostics/etc whose apparent spiritual beliefs were other than highly conventional for the community of which they were a part, were at risk; and inverse-a) Wicca, at least in its modern form, is far less a conventional religion with a conventional stack of doctrinal beliefs and whatnot and far more the antithesis of same, than most people realize. If you survey for beliefs, you get more consensus on “it is wrong to establish an official set of Divine Truths and insist that everyone believe them” than you do on any of the stuff like “We believe in a God and a Goddess” or “The pentagram is a holy symbol to us”. So if the witch-burnings were a persecution of people who did not believe conventional things, Wiccans are not off base in saying that those persecutions were persecutions of “us” – not because the “witches” were “Wiccan” but because the “witches” were “the unorthodox”.

Admittedly, the latest decade of newage (rhymes with “sewage”) Wicca-trendiness has undercut all of this. There are now a disgusting number of people who would like to formalize a Wiccan belief system, have Samhain off as an organizational holiday where they work, and cry “victim” and get offended when little kids put on green warty witch masks for Hallowe’en.

PS – the valid reason for this to be “said” unto orthodox Christianity is that it it what is hegemonic (and orthodoctrinaire) in our society, now and historically. Were we Afghanistanis or Arabians or Turks, we might wish to recouch this stance in terms that are used by Islam to refer to infidels and sacrilegious persons.

Well, but the big witch hunting happened in the 16th and beginning of the 17th century. Was there really a very large population at that time of pagans/followers of folk religions? I thought by that point, for the most part, paganism was gone in Europe, and the folk traditions had been Christianized.

While I appreciate the desire to identify with marginalized people, I would still tend to think that picking a word that explicitly meant “worker of sorcery” with definite connections to the Christian concept of Satan-worship was simply a bad choice. (Pretending that “witch” ever meant “wise woman” does not help.)

(A thought that is echoed to a certain extent in Arlea Æðelwyrd Hunt-Anschütz’s The Myth of the Burning Times.)

Clearly, there is no justification for the persecutions imposed during the Burning Times, regardless who the victims were, and clearly, the idiotic rants of the “anti-Satanists,” today, are equally repugnant. However, as an analogy: there are spurious claims by some Afro-Centrist revisionists that all Greek culture was stolen from “black” Africa and all pre-Columbian American civilizations were gifts from some now lost African society. These claims are harmful. They are so silly as to be dismissed by anyone with a basic knowledge of history. However, the propagation of those stories provides ammunition for those who would dismiss all African achievement by rolling together the historical and the fanciful and dismissing them all as fantasies.

Well, keep in mind also that not all modern witches are Wiccan, and not all Wiccans consider themselves witches. Wicca is a relatively modern spirituality with a heavy basis on the old earth religions. But there are also modern witches who can/claim to trace their spiritual lineage directly back to the Middle Ages or earlier. (I don’t know how verifiable these claims are, as I haven’t done much study on them, but I am aware of at least one or two covens around Chicago which fall into this category. They tend to keep their circles closed to more recent converts, which is, ironically, how I came across them. :stuck_out_tongue: ) These “hereditary witches” are not Wiccan (and are sometimes quick to correct you if you suggest they are.)

In any case, while I don’t consider myself Wiccan, I call myself a witch because it sounds less pretentious than “sorceress” or something similar, and is shorter than “practicioner of an ecclectic, generally Celtic, earth-based faith.” :slight_smile: I use it interchangeably with “pagan.”

I’ve met many many pagan and wiccan folks in my time.

But I personally believe that anyone who says that they have an unbroken line of “alternative religion” going back to the middle ages is fooling themselves. Most folks in central Europe have a hard time going much further back than the turn of the last century… to think that someone has an unbroken line for 500-1000 years is fallacy.

Personally, I imagine someone in the family history, probably recently, was a bit of a bullshit artist and has managed to make a good story gospel.

Nothing wrong with it, of course, but that’s my thought on the subject.