What is a witch? It's a good question. The word "witch" for most people evokes images of cackling hags on broomsticks, à la Halloween, or calls up thoughts of malevolent women who seek to harm other people through evil means. Sometimes, people call a woman "witch" just because they don't like her. But the truth about witches is much different than what's commonly thought. In fact, being a witch is a statement about one's spirituality-for either a woman or a man.
The word "witch" has a clouded history. The most common claim is that the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon root "wic-," which means "to bend or shape." The word "witch," derived from this root, means someone who can bend or shape energy at will. Some people wonder why witches today would still choose to use such a maligned word, particularly since it's so loaded with historical animosity and a cultural memory of the witch hunts in western Europe. The reason is that most who practice as witches today have chosen to reclaim the word, and in doing so consciously honor the huge number of women and men who were tortured and died at the hands of Inquisitors and witch hunters. To claim the word again today is to take fear out of the word, and thus it is also to take fear out of the ancient, peaceful, earth-honoring practices witches seek to revive.
In truth, witches are women and men who seek to honor Earth through her seasons, who remember the sacred in everyday life, and who use magic to weave the sacred into their lives. This process of spiritual weaving is called witchcraft.
Magic, in and of itself, is a simple thing. While there are plenty of fantastical stories about magic, magic itself as practiced in the Craft (as witchcraft is also called) is quite uncomplicated. Simply put, magic is meaningful action. Spells are simply ritualized forms of pure intent mixed with action.
And there are rules about magic, as well. Far from being malevolent, witches live by a simple but strict code of ethics, generally composed of two binding rules, in order to ensure that the sacred is infused in all that they do. The first states that as long as you harm no one (including yourself), you can do what you want. This is today known as the Wiccan Rede and is often written, "An harm ye none, do what ye will." For those witches who live very strictly by this rule, and who strive to walk the sacred path in every moment, this means always being mindful of their actions, making sure that everything they do is working for the good of the world around them. Witches will sometimes weave magic to bring justice to a violent criminal, or otherwise bring justice to unjust situations. The true witch never tries to gain at the expense of another, nor does she or he attack others malevolently through spells or magic work.
The second rule of witchcraft is a sort of cosmic insurance for the first. It's the rule of energetic return. It states that whatever energy you put out into the world, it will come back to you at least three times over. This rule would make anyone think twice before creating a vicious spell against someone else.
But who are witches? Well, the truth is, witches are all around and come from all different backgrounds and places. Some, such as Laurie Cabot, the famous modern witch of Salem, say that all women are witches (though, as stated before, men can be witches too-and male witches, for the record, are not called "warlocks"). Witches are everyday people who practice a religion that has its roots in the ancient, pre-Christian world, during a time of our collective history when Earth was held as a sacred, living being (sometimes called Gaia today). While modern witchcraft is a new religion, it is based primarily upon discovery of what is called the Old Religion of Western Europe-particularly of Britain, where the modern form of witchcraft, called Wicca, originated with an Englishman named Gerald Gardner. Not all witches are Euro-based (and neither are all witches Wiccan); many fuse their beliefs with life-affirming practices, rituals and beliefs garnered from all around the world. Different paths call to different people, and most witches do their best to learn and honor the traditions to which they feel drawn, rather than simply appropriating them.
Generally, witches believe in a benevolent divine force, and they personify it as the Goddess and the God, who are in an eternal cosmic dance represented by the seasons of Earth. They celebrate this dance through various festivals and rituals performed on full and new moons, as well as during major holidays. The calendar of major holidays is called the Wheel of the Year, which begins and ends at Samhain (what the modern world calls Hallowe'en). This is the witches' new year.
Witches also believe that the divine energy may take on many different forms at different times for different purposes. The Goddess is the oldest form of divinity known to humanity, and witches believe that honoring the divine feminine helps to bring balance to a world lacking peace. One form of the Goddess is the Triple Goddess, also known around the world and often represented in the sun or the moon. The Dark Goddess represents the dark and hidden places of ourselves-the places we often fear, but which hold great power over the deepest mysteries of life. The Dark Goddess is represented by different goddesses throughout the world, many known from antiquity and many still worshipped actively today: Lilith, Tiamat, Sekhmet, Hecate, and our beloved Kali Maa are some of her names. There are many other forms of Goddess, and increasingly, she is being worshipped and honored on every inhabited continent.
There is no central governing body for witchcraft, as it is an entirely individualized religion, although many do choose to practice in groups (called "covens"). Witches do not try to convert others, for it is a religion of choice. Although witches continue to be persecuted, we do honor various paths to the divine and believe in tolerance and open dialogue. There are many places and several good books that offer guidance in learning more about the practice of witchcraft, if you are interested in learning more. If you feel drawn to Goddess and to the Craft, there are many good books to read, and we offer many classes by qualified teachers who can help guide you on your chosen path. For more information, go to the Classes section of our website.
Erin Johansen is SHARANYA's program director.
Chandra Alexandre, PhD is the founder and executive director of SHARANYA.