Contemporary or modern day witchcraft is what is nowadays termed as a pagan religion and it can also be termed as a Pantheist set of beliefs where worship is paid to multiple deities rather than a single God. It is a term often used by orthodox, Monotheistic religions and used in this way can cover Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and all other nature based beliefs. Several in depth researches have found that Paganism of this kind makes up at least half of world belief.
The word 'Pagan' stems from the Latin words 'Pagini' or 'Paganus', meaning quite simply "a person of the countryside". In true Roman style Pagans were looked down on by the city dwellers as being of inferior status but there was no connection with evil, they were just seen as lesser people in the same way peasants were viewed in later years. This view changed in the 1400s with the fear of witchcraft beginning to take hold when the Church and people began to link witchcraft and paganism with worship of the devil and spells and curses.
The Use of 'Magick'
Whether it was about this time or through later years, the word 'Magic' was replaced in references about paganism and witchcraft by the word 'magick' - the 'k' had arrived." It is now the accepted spelling within Wicca and some other Pagan religions that utilise 'magickal' practice and ritual. This word usage differentiates how the witch uses powers from a magician's 'tricks'. Magick invokes a deity to channel power as opposed to a magician's mere illusion.
Different Forms of Witchcraft
There are many forms of witchcraft, some of which overlap. Different adherents will define their beliefs in different ways but it is worth listing some different forms here to give a guide to their basics -
African Witchcraft - A collective heading for the many types of witchcraft in Africa but many forms are closely based. In central Africa, the Azande believe that witchcraft is the cause much suffering and misfortune. Witchcraft or 'Mangu' is seen as family based with abilities being passed down the family generations, inherited from parents rather than just taught and it can be that a person is not aware of their 'parental gift' but unconsciously use their magickal powers.
U.S.A. - Appalachian Folk Witchcraft - In much the same way as orthodox Christian religions, Appalachians believe good and evil are separate forces, stemming from the Christian God and Devil. This being the case, there are aspects of life where their magick will have no effect. They believe that witches have paranormal powers and therefore can perform powerful magick for the purposes of both good and evil. Although orthodox in belief in some respects, there is still the belief in nature to provide power and signs.
U.S.A. - Pennsylvania Dutch Hexcraft or 'Pow-wow' - When Germans settlers arrived in Pennsylvania they met the local Native Americans, so the term 'pow-wow' to describe this branch of witchcraft may come from Indian gatherings. This style is old in some of its form, including Middle Age charms and incantations. Like the Appalachian style, it has some beliefs from the Jewish Kabbalah and Christian Bible and these witches view themselves as Christian based. Magick within this form of witchcraft is connected to healing and protection as well as matchmaking and casting or warding off hexes.
Kitchen or Cottage Witchcraft - Kitchen, or also known as Cottage witches, practice magick where their name truly places them - around the hearth and in the home. These witches homes are sacred places. Herbal magick is used for many reasons and outcomes including bringing protection, prosperity and to heal. It might be said that these witches bring other aspects of witchcraft into their home as many also follow other styles of magick and witchcraft.
Green Witchcraft - Very akin to a Kitchen or Cottage witch but the Green witch is an outdoor practitioner, practicing in the open air to be closer to the Divine Spirit. Everything that a Green witch may use is taken from or made from materials from the natural land and growth.
Hedge witchcraft - A solitary witch is the Hedge witch, not being part of a group or coven, practicing magick alone. Working mostly in the green arts, herbal cures and spells. They were once viewed as the local wise person, curing illnesses and giving advice. Although listed here as a style of witchcraft, they are considered by many to be traditional witches.
Hereditary witchcraft - In similar fashion to some African witches, Hereditary witches believe that their abilities are there from birth, passed from previous generations but Hereditary witches are aware of their gifts. This is very much so in Romany traditions.
Traditional Witchcraft - It could be argued that Traditional witchcraft has a science, history and the arts basis. Although having the same regard for nature as Wiccans, traditional witches worship neither nature nor the god or goddess of the Wiccans, contacting spirits that are part of the unseen spirit world. Magick is more practical than ceremonial, focussing on herbs and potions. Traditional Witchcraft has no law of harming none but it does believe in the responsibility of the witch within how magick can be used. Magick can be used in self-defence as well as other types of protection.
Wicca - Wicca is a modern Pagan religion worshipping the Earth and nature. Created in the 1940s and '50s by Gerald Gardner. It was Gardner who defined this style of 'witchcraft' as positive and life-affirming, including many metaphysical facets - divination, herblore, magick and psychic abilities. Wiccans swear on oath never to harm with their magick. It is often heard that Wiccans do not align themselves with witchcraft as the public understands the term.
Having given an outline of several kinds of witchcraft, it must be said that the majority of witches today belong to the Wiccan religion, so the following is based on that belief.
The central theme of Wicca is, "if it does no harm, do your own will". Gerald Gardner incorporated many witchcraft practices and skills that had pre-existed for centuries having been part of many differing beliefs and cultures. Today's witchcraft in Britain, Europe, North America and Australia have evolved based on Gardner's definition and belief system - Gardnerian witchcraft.
Wiccans do not believe in a Devil or the concept of Hell, giving nonsense to the general idea that Wiccans worship the devil.
Defining the Belief
As inferred above, there are differing definitions of 'Wicca' and 'Witch', and many such Pagan and New Agers do not agree on how to define themselves and their beliefs. Most will agree to call themselves witches and their religion Wicca, not Witchcraft. Nowadays, there are several Wiccan traditions and their beliefs vary somewhat, although the majority are loosely based on the Gardnerian ideals.
Use of Magick
Wiccans believe that witches become one with the deities through rituals, becoming in harmony and in tune with the universal life force or cosmic energy. This energy can in some ways be controlled and allows the witch to direct it through magick. This energy comes from themselves and the environment.
It is believed and this belief is being born out by science, that matter vibrates with its own energy and speed. The appearance and structure of matter is also determined by its vibration. The book "Spellworks for Covens", puts forward the concept that energy from the witch's body also has two vibrations - a physical vibration and a spiritual vibration, both vibrating at different rates. These are believe to come together or 'meld' during power-raising rituals. This increases their overall energy and creates a conduit for energy to flow through them. This energy resource can be replenished or magnified by pulling energy from the Earth and sky.
Wicca in Practice
Both sexes can be witches, men are not warlocks as some in the media would have people believe, they too are called witches. An aspiring witch does not require a 'gift' to be a Wiccan witch, this is achieved through training.
The Wiccan Rede
This is the Wiccan code of law and ethics. Part of the text reads -
Bide the Wiccan Law ye must,
In perfect love and perfect trust.
These eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill,
An ye harm none do as ye will.
And ever mind the Rule of Three,
What ye send out comes back to thee.
Follow this with mind and heart,
And merry ye meet and merry ye part.
Meaning that Wiccans should not undertake magick that will harm another person and if they do, it will boomerang back to them threefold. The magick is for personal change only.
In Wicca, magick can be used for both good and evil - white magick or black magick. In accord with this is the witches intent which helps to determine the outcome. This is not as sinister as it might appear as it is claimed that black magick can be used for good purposes and white magick can be used for bad - it depends on the intent of the witch.
Learning the Wiccan Way
Witches can practice their craft in groups, known as covens but many do so by themselves and these witches are known as solitaries. Within covens, a new members is welcomed into the group with a formal initiation ceremony. The Gardnerian tradition holds that there are three phases of attainment and each of these last a year and a day. Many covens have adopted their own rules, procedures and titles for these stages but they generally fall into the following categories -
Student or Witch
Practitioner or Priest(ess)
Teacher or High Priest(ess)
Once all stages are completed, they become a fully fledged witch having the power to perform and participate in formal rituals.
The Witch's Implements and Accessories
Athame (ceremonial knife)
The athame is an important implement of many rituals. A double-edged knife with a blade about 6 inches long - for those worried about such things, it is not razory sharp being more of a ritual instrument. It is used for marking the edges of the circle and for stirring the salt and water used to consecrate the circle. It can be used for sacred carving such as symbols or words into candles. The owner marks the handle or blade with their witchcraft name and it is kept in a white container or cloth. The athame is also used in the ritual of the Great Rite as a phallic symbol, representing one half of the union of the God and Goddess from which new life springs.
Used in the same way as an athame to mark the boundaries of the circle, really a matter of implement choice.
Boline (cutting knife)
Another knife used in Wiccan rites but the boline is very sharp. Usually made of copper, it is used to cut herbs.
Wands portray fire and the life force of the witch, being a symbol of power as well as of wisdom and healing. The wand can also be used to cast the circle but has the added power to be used to direct the energy during spellcraft.
Used in the same manner as a wand, the staff is about shoulder height when vertical. The staff can be used to mark the boundaries of the circle
One of the items most associated with witches from fairy tales and folk lore as the witches means of flying transport and many witches do have them but they are in a ritual sense rather than zooming about the sky. Besoms are used to purify an area of lingering, unwanted or negative energies before 'casting a circle' prior to any ritual.
The area of a ritual must be purified beforehand. Sage is often used, together with a besom, to cleanse the area - sage creates a thick, grayish smoke.
Salt is also used as a purifying agent, contained usually in a seashell or a glass dish. Mixed with water, it portrays the elements of earth and water, being used to consecrate the circle.
Water is used in a container in the consecration of the circle. The container can be of any type but must be large enough to hold three pinches of salt and be stirred with the athame.
The thurible is an incense burner, where the incense represents the element of air and when burning, it also represents fire. Both air and fire are used to purify an area or the tools being used. The thurible is usually a small version of a cauldron, made of metal or any other fire-resistant material.
An essential part of the witch's craft. Magic cauldrons go back into the mists of time to the Celtic Goddess Cerridwen and perhaps, beyond. Cerridwen's cauldron represented the cycle of birth, renewal, rebirth and transformation. Nowadays, witches often burn small fires known as 'balefires' with incense or suchlike in their cauldrons. In the Great Rite ritual, the cauldron represents the womb, thus calling up the union of the God and Goddess from which new life springs.
The altar paton is a plate or disk and can be of metal or wood and it bears a pentagram. It is a container for the items needed for the ceremony and is placed on the alter as a focal point.
When a circle is cast there are four quadrants - north, south, east and west. 'Quarter Candles' which are specifically coloured are used on the perimeter the circle. The colours are - green (earth) for north, red (fire) for south, yellow (air) for east and blue (water) for west. On the alter, three other candles are lit with their colour being determined by the ritual being performed.
A chalice is used to represent the female principle of water. A chalice can also be used in place of the cauldron during the Great Rite. Another use is in the 'Cake and Ale' ritual where a chalice of wine is blessed by the High Priest and then passed from member to member in the circle.
There is no official or required use of a bell but examples of when a bell may be rung are opening or closing the circle, invoking the God or Goddess or simply ringing the ritual stages in or out.
Pentacle or Pentagram
A pentagram is a five-pointed star and becomes a pentacle when it is enclosed within a circle. There are two ways to depict this symbol - 'upright' with one point up, two points down and this is the widely recognized depiction of witchcraft but some believers of other faiths show it 'inverted' - two points up and one down. The points each represent earth, fire, water, air and spirit and the circle represents the God and Goddess who connect the energy of the pentagram, allowing it to be focused.
Clothing is usually optional for the majority of rituals, alternatively, witches wear long, hooded robes, usually dark in colour. Most covens require that before going skyclad, everyone must be in agreement to do so.
The Book of Shadows
The Book of Shadows is the witch's personal guide. It contains the particular witch's ritual and spell information and/or that of that witch's coven. It also contains everything the witches need to know, including details of all of the sabbats.
Preparing a Ritual
Many traditions borrow from the Wiccan, Gardnerian form of preparation. There are many variations, however and the following is really only a general guide.
All areas where rites may take place are considered to have unwanted or detrimental energies or forces within them so the circle area must be purified. The besom sweeps the area, sage is burned while being carried over the witch's head as the witch walks a spiral around the circle, from centre out, stopping at each quadrant. The witch is also be purified by the use of incense being wafted around their body.
This is set up at the east side of the circle with candles portraying the God and Goddess. Also there is salt and water for purification, the athames of the High Priest and Priestess as well as incense.
The Sacred Circle
Sacred Circles are considered to be places outside of space and time and are cast by the High Priest and Priestess who mark their edges with an athame or a staff, sword or wand. The Circle is again by placing three pinches of salt into water and stirring nine times with the athame. The mixture is then sprinkled around the perimeter of the circle as incense is lit and also carried around the Circle's perimeter. Once done, Quarter Candles are placed at each of the four quarters of the circle.
Calling the Quarters
The spirits of the four elements - earth, fire, water and air are called together by the assembled witches. These guardians both guide and protect the witches.
A deity needs to be involved in order that magick can be performed and dieties are now called. These can be either the God, the Goddess or both, depending on the ritual. Calling is done by invocations related to that ritual. This is where the ritual itself begins.
The Great Rite is a central ritual and is the one outlined here. There are many others.
Performing the Ritual
The Great Rite ritual represents the sexual union of the God and Goddess, from which new life springs. It can cover many aspects such as a good harvest but importantly, it is performed to continue the circle of life in order that the new God is born at Yule. The ritual can be representational with the athame and cauldron being used to portray the sexual union or the High Priest and Priestess can couple providing that all of the coven is in agreement that the rite can be done in this manner. It should be pointed out that this union is usually done in private and that the High Priest and Priestess are married or are a couple. As might be assumed, the symbolic use of athame and cauldron is mostly used.
In the symbolic rite, the cauldron or chalice is held by the High Priestess and represents the womb. The athame is the phallic symbol, held by the High Priest. There are many variations of the ritual but often the High Priestess kneels at the altar with the cauldron in her hands and faces the High Priest. Both recite invocations that bring the Sun King to dance with the Maiden of Spring. The High Priest then places the athame into the cauldron while both recite words of the Land of Youth, the Wine of Life and the Cauldron of Cerridwen. The High Priest then takes the cauldron from the High Priestess and holds it up, proclaiming the completion of the rite and its symbolism of the union of the God and Goddess.
The ritual is now complete and the circle must be closed.
Closing the Circle
Closing the Circle is the reverse of the casting process. The invoked deities are thanked for their presence and help, then the quarters are 'released'. Following this, The High Priest or Priestess 'takes down' the Circle. This is done by walking around the Circle perimeter, in the opposite direction from when it was cast and with the athame pointing out from the centre.