When we look at the records of the inquisition we find that often practitioners of magick, who did not consider themselves to be witches, would be labelled as such. A good example of this is the Italian Benandanti, or the ‘Doers of Good’, who considered themselves to be the balancing force, battling the evil-doers who practiced witchcraft. The Benandanti were actively opposed to witchcraft, yet they were also labelled as witches by the inquisition.
Magickal practitioners such as British cunning folk, the Italian Benandanti, the German Hexenbanner and the Livonian werewolves used their powers to combat the malefic magick of witches, and effectively occupied a middle-ground between church and witch, for they used scripture and grimoire-derived material in their work. Their magick might be Christian in provenance, but it was definitely not approved of by the church due to its magickal nature. The use of magick to protect from witches and their magick can be found throughout history and examples can be found going back many thousands of years. What follows is an example from ancient Babylonia, in which an exorcism is performed on a simulacrum representing a witch:
“But I by command of Marduk, the lord of charms,
by Marduk, the master of bewitchment,
Both the male and female witch
as with ropes I will entwine,
as in a cage I will catch,
as with cords I will tie,
as in a net I will overpower,
as in a sling I will twist,
as a fabric I will tear,
with dirty water as from a well I will fill,
as a wall throw them down.”<1>
Similar examples of a separation between good and bad (evil) magick can be found in many cultures today, in which the negative magick is usually associated with witchcraft. For example, in Latin America today, a definite separation is made between those who use magick to heal (healer or Curandero) and those who use it for evil purposes (witch or Brujo).
Yet, modern pagan witches insist on using the term, often saying that it is their right to use the term, and that they are working towards reclaiming it as a positive term. This is an extraordinary contradiction, as the practices associated with witchcraft when viewed from a global perspective, are in exact opposition to the magick worked by followers of the Wiccan Tradition, who as we have already seen use the term to describe themselves and their practices.
Indeed, when even writers of the past have categorised witches into a range of different categories, from Nicolàs Eymerich in the fourteenth century to Francis Hutchinson in the early eighteenth century, we realise that the term witch is likely to always remain a loaded one with many negative connotations.
“A Hebrew Witch, a Pagan Witch, a Lapland Witch, an Indian Witch, a Protestant Witch, and a Popish Witch, are different from one another; some in Honour, and some in Disgrace.”<2>
So, was ‘witchcraft’ ever a term used by practitioners to describe positive forms of magick they practiced? It would seem that historically it was not, nor is it a term which is generally understood to be that today, with the exception of its use within the modern pagan community. The term was often used to describe any practitioner of magick in an effort to vilify them and demean their magick to the same level of those who practiced witchcraft, which was considered the lowest form of magick.
It should be clear by now that it can be argued that both the words “wiccan” and “witch” (which, as we have seen, historically have the same meaning) are completely inappropriate terms for the practices and beliefs of the modern Wiccan movement, in which magick is predominantly used for positive ends such as for healing, divination and for self-improvement. Both the terms ‘witch’ and ‘wicca’ have had severely negative connotations attached to them from the earliest times of their use, however we also need to take into consideration that these are terms which were there from the first popular stirrings of the Wiccan movement, whether or not revivalist or a continuation of an earlier tradition.
It is ironic perhaps that the practices of modern Wicca have more in common with those of the temple religions of the ancient world, combined with the Qabalistic and ceremonial practices of the medieval through to Victorian period, yet they perpetuate the use of the very word that the oppressors of these practices used in an effort to suppress them. This is a strange and unfortunate twist in the development of the tradition, and possibly one of the greatest stumbling blocks for those who wish to have it recognised and accepted as a world religion today.
Returning to the word ‘wicca’, we see that Doreen Valiente, in her book An ABC of Witchcraft, published in 1973, omitted an entry for the term ‘wicca’, although she was familiar with it as illustrated by her use of it in another entry. This would seem to indicate that the term was simply not considered significant enough by Valiente at the time of her writing to warrant its own entry. Gerald Gardner himself referred to the practices he wrote about and taught as “The Witch Cult” or ‘witchcraft’ not Wicca, other than in saying that those who initiated him referred to themselves as the ‘wica’ and using the term infrequently to refer to the practitioners of the Witch Cult in his writings. Likewise, earlier books written by prominent initiates of the tradition also seemed to use the term “Witch” or “Witchcraft” rather than “Wicca” as their preference as the norm well into the 1980’s. For example What Witches Do; A Witches Bible; An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present; and Mastering Witchcraft.
Of course, as all practitioners of magick will know, names have a great deal of power, and as such the names we use for ourselves can define and also sometimes constrain us. The names we use for the traditions we follow, our practices and beliefs likewise define us and should be given due consideration. Whilst Gardner might have preferred ‘the witch cult’ and ‘wica’, it is clear that these terms are not appropriate for the tradition as it is practiced and perceived today. At the same time the terms ‘Wicca’ and ‘Witchcraft’, whether used singularly or interchangeably, are both possibly historically inappropriate, yet useable today, as is ‘Craft’. The latter is possibly a less loaded term, and more fully representative of the tradition when applied to the initiatory esoteric variants thereof.
<1> The Religion of Babylonia & Assyria, Jastrow, 1893, also quoted in The Book of Witches, Hueffer, 1908
<2> An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft: With Observations Upon Matters of Fact, Hutchinson, 1718
Extract from: Wicca: Magical Beginnings written by d’Este & Rankine, 2008 (Avalonia.) PB / Kindle @ https://amzn.to/3Ay4HJr. Shared here with the intention to inspire and inform the now and future generations interested in Wicca and other Pagan traditions inspired by it.