What is a Witch?
"I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!" The Wicked Witch of the West... One of the most notorious and stereotypical witches in all literature. She had green skin, a big wart- covered nose, and a wide-brimmed black hat. She summoned a legion of monsters, stirred evil brews in her black cauldron, and generally made life difficult for the fun-loving citizens of Oz. She, and her fellow "hags" tend to be seen in a rather comic light, despite their appearance, and are usually seen around Halloween. They are one of the two ideas that most people hold of who witches are and what they do. The other is that of the "devil's whore" of Medieval Europe and Colonial Salem who were charged with killing babies, celebrating "black masses," and having sex orgies with Satan. The modern Wiccan; a practitioner of the religion known as Wicca, Witchcraft, or simply The Craft; resembles these "Witches" as much as a straw broom resembles the Dirt Devil Upright. The Craft is a religion based on the worship of a supreme divine creator, the practice of magic, and a reverence for the earth and all her inhabitants.
Deity Concepts and Worship Practices
"All religions are structures built on reverence of Deity. Wicca is no exception. The Wicca acknowledge a supreme divine power, unknowable, ultimate, from which the entire universe sprang," (Cunningham, 9). This is a Witch's concept of the Divine. However, it is a distant, powerful image that is not easily understood. For the purpose of worship, the Wicca recognize the duality of this power. It is both male and female, good and evil, and therefore is worshipped in the form of a Goddess and a God. These are the primeval gods of the ancient world, worshipped under names in many cultures: Odin, Freya, Ra, Ma'at, Zeus, Diana, Apollo, Kali, Shiva, Pele, and countless others. Wiccans believe that these are all, in reality, simply individual aspects of one God and one Goddess, rather than individual Deities. Just as there are numerous names for the Divine, so do Wiccans worship them in just as many ways.
There are many different branches, called "traditions", of The Craft, most of which are based on the religious practices of one or more ancient cultures. There are Celtic Wiccans, Egyptian Wiccans, and Greek Wiccans. One of the newest traditions is a hybrid of Celtic Shamanism and the tribal religions of Ancient America. There is, however, a basic outline for conducting worship services that is followed by all covens and solitaries. A standard Wiccan worship service, or ritual, which takes place on one of the eight yearly sabbats (the solstices, equinoxes, and four Ancient Celtic agricultural festivals) or at an esbat (full moon), consists of the creation of sacred space (called "casting the circle;" this is done through visualization), prayers, and offerings (these are usually material possessions, plants, or handmade items; Wiccans never sacrifice animals or people), and a sharing of a simple meal with fellow witches (if a member of a coven) and the Deities. Worship services have many important purposes, but the main reason Wiccans perform rituals is to gain understanding of the energies of the divine and, ultimately, the energies contained in the witch himself/herself. The harnessing and directing of this natural, personal energy is what witches call magic (or magick).
"Magic is a basic part of The Craft, but it does not have to be the same as the religious aspect. In other words, Wicca may be considered a religion with a Goddess and a God that uses magic in a religious framework," (Moura, 91). There are two types of magic practiced by Wiccans: Religious (ritual) magic, and non-religious (folk) magic. When casting folk magic spells, Wiccans combine the energies within crystals, herbs, stones, and candles with their own personal energies to bring about a desired effect. After the ingredients are gathered, the energies are united and sent out to do their work. This sending out of energy is accomplished through intense visualization that can take a few short minutes or a few hours, depending on the skill and patience of the witch. Wiccans feel that this visualization is the most important part of a spell. All the other components of the spell are simply to assist the witch in raising energy and to place him/her in the correct mindset for visualization. The other type of spellcasting, ritual magic, is quite different. A ritual spell is only done during a worship service and uses none of the "assistants of the folk spell. A ritual spell is simply the gathering of personal energy in the presence of the God and Goddess. The Wiccan raises this energy through dance, music, or other physical exercise. When the spellcasters feel they can hold no more energy, they visualize the intent of their spell and release the energy to do its work. Witches cast spells for many different reasons, but they never use magic to hurt, control, or destroy. Wicca has no written laws of what is right or wrong, no huge books of ancient dogma, but it does have one essential rule of thumb: the Witches' Rede. Simplified, it says: Do what you want, but harm none. "None" includes people, animals, Mother Earth, and one's self. In fact, the majority of Wiccan spells are to heal friends, pets, fellow coven members, and even the Earth.
Environmentalism in Wicca
In a religion that sees the Earth as a physical manifestation of the Goddess and God, a reverence for nature is a natural extension of reverence for the divine. Most Wiccans are involved in a number of environmental causes, and many belong to political action groups such as P.E.T.A., The National Arbor Day Foundation, or GreenPeace. Wiccans never kill needlessly or take something form nature without an offering or thanks. A witch never sacrifices a living thing to the Goddess or God and whenever a branch must be cut from a tree or a crop picked, the witch will thank the plant and leave a gift such as a crystal or a coin. This "gift" is not actually for the plant, but to remind the Wiccan that whenever we take, we must give in something in return. This maintains a balance in the natural, and spiritual, world.
All of these aspects together--worship of the God and Goddess, the practice of magic, and a reverence for nature--define the modern witch. Witchcraft is not devil worship or a cult of sex orgies and drug abuse, but is simply "...a way of life for hundreds of thousands--perhaps millions--of well adjusted adults who simply share a view of nature that is different from that of the majority," (Cunningham, xi). This is who witches are and what they do. Witches are good, moral, law-abiding people. Even those from the west.
Cunningham, Scott. The Truth About Witchcraft Today. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1994.
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide of the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1988.
Moura, Ann. Green Witchcraft. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1996.
Walker, Barbra G. The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
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