By Christian Day, Salem Warlock
Adapted from his book, The Witches Book of the Dead (2021, Warlock Press)
Salem has been associated with the word Witch for over three-hundred years, ever since the infamous trials of 1692 sent twenty people to their deaths and dozens more to prison. Beginning in the late 1960’s, with the arrival of Salem’s official Witch, Laurie Cabot, a modern Witchcraft community emerged and continues to thrive to this day, further cementing our city’s association with Witchcraft. Salem’s Witches are often challenged by reporters, “why are there real Witches in Salem when the accused of 1692 weren’t Witches?” Well, for starters, nobody challenges people of other faiths for where they choose to settle. Maybe we just like the architecture or being by the ocean. Moreover, Witchcraft was long practiced in secret in order to to avoid persecution so we may never who was and wasn’t a Witch, but that doesn’t really matter. With Salem being more associated with the word Witch than any other place on Earth, it is the perfect platform to correct the negative and diabolical definition of Witch provided by the Puritans of 1692.
Gerald Gardner, founder of the modern Witch Cult in 1951, was the first to seriously declare to the world, “I am a Witch,” at least by someone not under torture or in some state of mental duress, so it’s hard to have a discussion of what a Witch is without looking to his works. Gardner had a massive influence over every variation of Witchcraft that would come later, including many traditions that now seek to distance themselves from his work while deceptively or ignorantly continuing to embody many of the practices he helped to define.
The word Witch itself is as hard to nail down as ever. Even with so much serious academic scholarship about magic throughout history becoming available over the last few decades, Witches remain a mysterious lot. Controversial works like archeologist Stephen J. Yeates’ 2008 book, The Tribe of Witches: The Religion of the Dobunni and Hwicce, have sought to find roots for the Witch in the very Anglo-Saxon culture that gave us the word Witch itself. Were there actually Goddess-worshipping tribes in merry old England as Yeates suggests? Or is he just another Margaret Murray, an early twentieth century anthropologist who theorized a vast pan-European Witch Cult that scholars argue simply isn’t there? Well, I would argue that glimpses of truth remain throughout Murray’s work and, while Yeates has his critics, it’s wonderful to see scholars still asking these questions. If Yeates is even partly right, I wonder if the practices and beliefs that he spoke of filtered down to what was later discovered (and heavily modified) by Gerald Gardner as Witchcraft.
Academics are largely responsible for the confusion of the word Witch. One must remember that anthropology and other academic disciplines were designed to maintain and enforce a Christianized colonialist structure. Thus, even when scholars weren’t necessarily religious, they had an interest in upholding the status quo in which human behaviors were divided into strict categories of good and evil. Thus, while the Siberian word Shaman became an umbrella for good magic anywhere in the world, the Witch became the label for those practicing baneful work. While scholars have thankfully been using Shaman less frequently, the Witch continues to remain the villain. In his 2017 book, The Witch, historian Ronald Hutton explores the cultural fear of Witches through time. He attempts to retire terms like “cunning folk or wise people,” “medicine men or women,” “witch-doctors,” and even the more recently popular “traditional healer” ¹ that are used to represented good magical practitioners in favor of the term, “service magician.” I was listening to his audiobook in the bathtub at the point in the book when he announced this and nearly drowned. While I agree with Hutton that these umbrella terms can sometimes be too culturally specific, he certainly knows enough Witches to know better than to continue to divide magical people into camps of good and evil, yet he insists on reserving the word Witch for “somebody believed to use magic for harmful purposes.” The true magical practitioner does not live by such dualistic moral concepts. Witches have the ability to both heal our communities and, when necessary, hex those that seek to harm it. To continue to use such binary definitions for so-called “good” and “bad” practitioners reduces magical people to cardboard cutouts.
Rather than being simply an umbrella word that anthropologists use to describe baneful magic, the word Witch is rooted in Anglo-Saxon—also known as Old English. As my husband, Brian Cain points out in his own book, Initiation into Witchcraft :
“The word Witch comes from the Old English roots ‘wicca’ and ‘wicce,’ which were pronounced with the palatal consonant /tʃ/ (like the “ch” sound in “chip”) and would have sounded like Witch-ah [wɪttʃɑ] and Witch-eh [wɪttʃe], respectively, not the more commonly mispronounced “wick-ah.” Also important is the fact that the roots ‘wicca’ and ‘wicce’ are not actually two words. Unlike Modern English, Old English was a gendered language and so ‘wicca’ and ‘wicce’ were gendered variations of the same word. If you remove those variations, you simply get the word “Witch!” Hence, continuing to use the word “Wicca” with a k sound doesn’t make any sense. While it has been said that Wicca with a k is an old word for Witch, the truth is that Witch is the old word for Witch!” ²
What separated the Witch from other magical practitioners in the Witch trials records and other stories of Witches throughout the times of the persecutions and beyond, is that the Witch was nearly always associated with diabolism—the worship of malevolent entities such as the Christian Satan. While magic itself was frowned upon, sorcerers weren’t as persecuted as Witches and sometimes even ended up in the employ of Royalty, such as John Dee—the personal astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. The Witch was not just evil because of her magic, but because of her supposed allegiance to deities of darkness. As early as the tenth century, the Church believed Witches to suffer delusions of riding on beasts with the Goddess Diana—though these fantasies were thought to have been put into their minds by the devil himself. Other female denizens of the dark world, such as the Queen of the Fairies and Herodias, occasionally appeared as beneficiaries of the Witch’s devotion as well. Therefore, there is a religious element associated with Witches that mere magicians do not have. This association likely led scholars, most notably Margaret Murray in the 1920’s, to dig deeper into the story of Witchcraft to see if the roots of such diabolism was really the worship of far older Gods. I agree with Murray and others that Witchcraft must have been a religion of sorts, but it is crucial to understand that magic is a fundamental trait of the Witch and is inseparable from her story.
Over the years, my use of the word Witch has both evolved and narrowed. I long I used the word Witch in an umbrella sense—to conceptually and archetypally describe a type of being—and I continue to do so in this new edition. Where I differ from the anthropologist is that I do not separate Witches from Ronald Hutton’s so-called “service magicians.” I know that Witches work with both hands. However, I have since discovered that one must be careful when using words as an umbrella. Some of the cultures I discuss would not have used the word Witchcraft to describe their magic and would have been appalled at others doing so. The word Witch was later grafted upon them by academics and missionaries whose goal it was to deride the practice of magic as something of evil intent. By defining religio-magical practices as diabolical and in the service of evil forces, it became easier to divide the populaces and prepare them for colonization and, perhaps more importantly, Christianization. However, I continue to use the word in a broader context within the book because I seek to reclaim it from the anthropologists. I continue to use it to describe certain archetypal qualities that I think make up the mythos and magic of the Witch: the practice of divine magic, the way in which Witches are often marginalized in society due to their powers, and their insistence on honoring the spirits and the gods of old. Still, I remain cautious in my use of the word as a blanket term because there are cultural implications and injuries involved in that use.
In today’s era, where respect for cultural diversity is (and should be) celebrated, we must be careful how we toss the word Witch at other peoples. While practices such as Brujeria and Curanderismo in Latin countries are often seen as direct synonyms with Witchcraft, I think this can sometimes hurt the cultures and practices this blanketing is applied to. The word Witch was imposed upon the ancestors of these people by European colonists, often at the end of a gun, and usually right before they were carted off to jail or worse. Such magical practitioners may have embraced the word privately as a means of rebellion. In other words, if you’re going to call me a Witch, maybe I am one! I’d certainly never tell anyone in those cultures that they should not claim or use the word, nor would I want to force it upon them. Archetypally, I see parallels between all religio-magical peoples across the globe, but I do not want to make the mistake of the anthropologists by referring to peoples in ways they do not refer to themselves.
Yes, I continue to use the word Witch in a broader, archetypal way, but with the understanding that the actual word is still revealing its linguistic, cultural, and magical origins to us. While I make no claims to be the final word on the word Witch, I continue to celebrate its mystery. I often liken the Witch to a large window with many panes of glass. Some panes are clear, some rippled, some quite opaque, and some even stained. I’m not sure that any of us who calls ourselves Witch sees through every pane, but it is when we stand back to look at the entire window that we begin to get glimpses of who the Witch was and understand the depths of her power.
— Christian Day
¹ Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017) Kindle Edition, loc. 120–150.
² Cain, Brian. Initiation into Witchcraft (New Orleans: Warlock Press, 2019), 2.