Sunday, October 10, 2010

What is a Witch?

Halloween is right around the corner, and it's about this time of year when being a witch becomes less of a counter-cultural, subversive life choice and more of an out in the open 'meet the freak' kind of thing. Walking through my local Barnes & Noble, I found a table of 'Horrific Halloween' ware. It included your usual horror story fare, but also a few books by Judika Illes, some vampire-themed tarot cards, and other items pointing towards truly magical happenings. And, it's gotten me thinking about the definition of a witch.

What makes one into a witch? Is it a birthright or something to do with a wand and a pointy hat? Is it being a priestess or a Druid or a worshipper of a 'pagan' deity? Or, is being a witch just another overly used term that now applies to so many different kinds of people that it is now meaningless?

Depending on which continent you're on, the definition of a witch changes, but what I've typically found through folklore is that a witch has a set of powers attributed to her by the society she is in. In Africa, the witch summons and controls spirits, but is feared for his/her ability to spread diseases such as AIDS. There are lesser degrees of African witches, though, and they pretty much correlate to various categories of witches around the world.

So let's look, quickly, at a few categories of witches - both from folklore and mundane life:


  • The Malevolent Witch: She is the witch that uses powers - typically given by the Devil or an equally malicious spirit - to harm the community around her. She might be a shapeshifter in the Appalachian mountains that runs around to the neighbor's house to kill the cattle or snatch the breath out of children's bodies. She might be a European spirit summoner, calling upon malevolent beings from the beyond to terrorize the dreams of the villagers and blight the crops. She is the stereotype of the witch on her broom singing, 'Come little children, I'd like to eat you and use your bones to divine the future.'
  • The Benevolent Witch: She is the opposite of the Malevolent Witch. The source of her powers is less clear, because nobody hates the Benevolent Witch (so we don't have to attribute her magic to the Dark Lord). She typically is used in folklore to combat the evil done by the 'bad' witch. her remedies and spells help heroes and townsfolk negate the effects of the green-faced, devil-lover. For some odd reason, her magic isn't seen as powerful or as mighty as the negative kind. Wonder why that is...
  • The Healing Witch: This witch is pretty self-explanatory. She uses knowledge of herbs and simple charms to fix the problems of her community. She heals the sick - both human, animal, and plant. She gives remedies for crop failure and broken limbs. Some don't even categorize this witch as a witch, because she rarely - if ever - casts spells. 
  • The Divinatory Witch: This is another witch who may or may not be a witch - by some standards. She doesn't necessarily cast spells, but she might just summon a spirit or two to foretell the future. She's the tarot reader peering into the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup while gazing into a crystal across from a candle flame. She might have natural gifts, but definitely knows a thing or two about telling you what to do and why.
  • The Religious Witch: This seems to correlate with what some people these days think of as a witch. They worship so-called 'pagan' deities, and are sometimes gifted with gifts correlating to that deity. For them, the path of the Witch is one tied to faith, belief, and religious practice. It has a foot in this world while the other is stepping into the next. 
  • The Spellcaster Witch: She is the witch who is a witch simply because she does spells. She knows how to light a mean prosperity candle or sweep clouds into a nasty little rainstorm. 

Most witches these days seem to be a combination of several of the above, if not all of the above. And, while you can easily categorize these different types of witches, the classifications only bring up more questions. How many spells means that the curious girl with a votive candle is now a witch? Is it when she's done 5 or 10? Is it when she believes that she's done her first successful spell, real magic? 

Is there a correct qualification for someone to be the Divinatory or Healing witch? Does the latter need a degree in natural medicine or the former a certification from some national organization? 

What do YOU think? What makes a witch? Is it spellcasting or the ability to summon and control a spirit? Is it combating another's magic or a belief in a pagan deity? Is it something entirely different? Also, share your favorite bit of witchy folklore! What are witches like in your part of the world, and what does being a witch mean to you?

Send your thoughts to IncitingARiotPodcast@gmail.com or leave a comment here for all to see!

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

2 comments:

  1. One is born a witch - it's a connection that has ached in your heart all of your life that has never been quite satisfied until you found the Craft.

    Now, you can be pagan and love those old gods with all your heart, you can celebrate the moon and the sun and the cycles of nature, you can even cast the occasional spell, but none of that makes you a witch. A witch has eyes that see not just the surface but that which is underneath just as clearly. A witch hears her ancestors speaking to her in the graveyard. A witch speaks to the spirits and the spirits listen, and speak back. A witch speaks to the beings of the world around her, and they show her how best to work with them.

    You can't learn witchcraft from books (though certainly you can learn techniques - if it isn't who you are, though, they won't do you a whole lot of good). You can't even learn it from other people, though those others can certainly help you open the doors of your perceptions and expand your possibilities.

    You have to let that awe and wonder that has ached at your heart for so long come out to play, and you have to accept that is who you are. A witch is forever an outsider, but a witch, as the outsider, can see everything.

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  2. I just did a post on what being a witch means to me! that's funny that sometimes i'm on the same thought process as others (rarely happens, my brain is all over the place!) nice to read your blog and your thoughts! am linking back to you on my post!

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