I try not to get entangled in “real witch” debates. For the most part, I find these conversations pretty asinine, regardless of who’s having them, as they seen to me to necessarily be rooted in insecurity and misinformation. We need other people to think our witchcraft is realer and more authentic because that’s how we construct our identity and if we’re not real then what are we. It’s exhausting and mostly fruitless.
I get called “not a real witch” all the time. It happened just the other day on YouTube, from someone who decided that real witches don’t hunt. I deal with being “not real” indirectly—through books, blogs, Internet memes—constantly, from both non-Wiccan witches (who routinely fail to appreciate the difference between the dominant New Age, non-initiatory version of Wicca and British Traditional Wicca and think I’m some kind of goody-goody narc out to take their curses away from them) and again from my supposed Wiccan fellows (convinced that real witches follow the Wiccan Rede and love a motherly triple goddess and think that I’m unethical and uninformed). And that’s even before we get to disagreements within my own tradition, drama within whatever open community I’m involved in that season, and the anti-witchcraft or witchcraft-isn’t-a-thing crowd that people my social periphery. There’s not really a way to win here.
I’ve already written about authenticity and witchcraft here to address much of the above, and began hinting at my own ideas for what constitutes an authentic witchcraft here, but I thought it might be worthwhile to more explicitly tackle “real” witchcraft as it operates as a category in my personal life. Because the reality is that even though I have the scholarly training to understand the problems in the construction of authenticity, and even though I know full well that this is about identity politics (always fluid), I still have an opinion about what “real witchcraft” is. I still make judgements about what other people do as “real” or not according to my own standard, though I rarely voice these judgements (because I am aware of how arbitrary and festooned with problems this conversation is).
So disclaimer first, as always: This is merely a description of what’s going on in my head when I’m evaluating whether or not to include someone in my personal, flawed understanding of what a witch is. I acknowledge that it is as arbitrary as pretty much any other definition we could come up with. I also know full well that definitions are not inherent, immovable things that exist independently of context. I am not trying to persuade anyone to adopt my definition, nor would I publicly require anyone to meet my definition in order to be treated as a “real witch” (I say publicly because, privately, I have to operate according to particular standards within my own coven and Craft family). If you think you’re a witch, then I won’t refute you. This also isn’t a blog about being a “real” Wiccan, which I think is a different conversation (and one that scares me quite a bit more).
I just think it’s silly to pretend that we’re not all operating according to some parameters (because we’re human beings living in social groups and we deal with things through categorization) though outwardly we might be the most diplomatic and accepting people in the world. Maybe it’d be a more interesting conversation to openly acknowledge those parameters and consider where they come from, as opposed to just fighting about it or totally failing to be self-critical. So!
My list of things that are involved in witchcraft isn’t very long. Funnily, it’s also mostly derived from my childhood understanding of witchcraft, long before I started doing any kind of real study or practice. After almost twenty years of being obsessed with witches and witchcraft, I still envision the witches of fairy tales, Disney movies, and secondhand church stories:
1) Witches employ magic designed to fulfill day-to-day needs in the interest of personal gain (to include family, tribe, etc.). An individual witch might do other things, too, but to me witchcraft is primarily about practical magic. Spells for jobs, spells for control over a situation or person, spells to hurt enemies, spells to draw lovers, the conjuring of a fetch or familiar to send messages or acquire information, etc. Witchcraft should attempt to affect mundane conditions and life circumstances.
This is how I distinguish between witchcraft and some other kinds of magic (for example, ceremonial, Qabalistic, New Age astral plane stuff, etc.). I don’t think of visualization as witchcraft in and of itself. I don’t think of Jungian-style “shadow work” or or anything involving phrases like “raising vibrations” or “inner child” as witchcraft. Magic, maybe. Powerful, maybe. But witchcraft to me is something more narrowly defined by practicality, immediate need, and physicality. It takes place lower down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and, as such, is rarely altruistic.
2) Witchcraft is scary. Not for the witch, necessarily, but for onlookers. Witchcraft operates on fringes, whether those are socio-political fringes, cultural fringes, religious fringes, or municipal fringes. Witches are outsiders, though they might disguise themselves for a variety of practical reasons (though not indefinitely). Witches, to an extent, actually can’t function in mainstream spaces.
This is why so much of witch lore is connected to death, sex, wilderness, danger, and liminal spaces. Witchcraft poses a danger to the status quo. For me, witchcraft is also closely tied to my own experiences with mental illness and trauma. There is something about witchcraft that to me is just necessarily violent to normalcy. It is taboo. It can be ugly. It breaks boundaries. This is why “hedge crossing” is such a meaningful phrase for what witchcraft is about.
The moment that witchcraft becomes “just another religion/spiritual practice” or something that aspires to white picket fences, it ceases to be witchcraft. Witchcraft cannot be normative. This is the root of my discomfort with witchcraft churches, the quest for legal religious exemptions, anyone-can-do-it teaching programs, etc.
I firmly believe that not everyone can be a witch, nor should everyone want to.
3) Witchcraft operates independently of any one religious worldview. Meaning that it doesn’t have anything to do with the gods you worship or don’t. You can belong to a religious tradition and (with greater or lesser success) be a witch, or not. Witchcraft is a thing you physically do and not a thing you believe.
I serve particular gods, but that service is not what makes me a witch. One can worship my gods and perform their rites—though, I would argue, poorly—without being a witch.
This is why witches who identify as secular are so adamant. For the last few decades, especially here in the United States, witchcraft has come to be tangled up in religious Wicca. Now, as a traditional Wiccan, I do freely use “Wicca” and “witchcraft” interchangeably when not in mixed company. In my ideal world, all Wiccans are, in fact, witches, though certainly not by any stretch the only kind. In practice, however, it becomes painfully clear that they are not.
As a religious studies scholar, I also know that the category of religion is fluid, and I believe that strong arguments can be made that witchcraft in any form—gods or not—is religious (you can read a little about that here). But putting my scholarly training aside, I freely acknowledge that those who believe in truly secular spaces (I do not) have a right to describe their practices in those terms.
For some readers, there are a lot of things that might seem to be glaringly absent. I include nothing about a code of ethics, nothing about nature, and nothing about goddesses, self-empowerment in the New Age sense, or healing (the notion that “all witches are healers” is enormously irritating to me). These things might be involved in individual kinds of witchcraft, but as far as I’m concerned are not fundamental. I also consciously exclude certain kinds of magic and certain kinds of people, the latter being particularly provocative for some.
But this is the checklist I’ve got in my head when someone tells me they’re a witch. It’s flawed and incomplete. It doesn’t work all the time and it gets me in trouble. But these are the things that I’ve never quite been able to shake.
So while I’ll always nod my head and go along with anyone’s claim to be a witch, I have a more definable boundary than I always like to admit, as I think we all do.
The key to healthy interactions with others seems to be not being so invested in my own definition that I end up with burst vessels when people disagree with me. I think it would be naive to say that I have no investment whatsoever in the opinions of others as far as my self-identity goes—we all do. But I try not to have so much. My irritation at being told that I’m not a real witch because I hunt is only fleeting, because I know that this person has no idea what hunting actually entails or what it means for me in my space in the world. I also try not to be irritated at the non-Wiccan witches who dismiss me offhandedly because their experience of Wicca is limited to New Agers quoting Silver RavenWolf (I think about the one young man who told me that Wicca was “witchcraft with its teeth pulled out”). I understand that their attitude, like mine, is reactionary and rooted in their own experience of being marginalized in an already marginal community. It is also unreasonable of me to expect them to have working knowledge of material that is reserved for Wiccan initiates and therefore to know how many teeth Wicca, in fact, has. I also don’t let people in other kinds of Pagan and New Age communities who self-identify as witches worry me overly much. As long as they’re not a part of Foxfire it’s none of my business, anyway. Finally, because my definition of witchcraft is consciously limited, I am mostly immune to the kinds of enraged debates that arise when witchcraft shows up unfavorably in the media, as it did most recently in Time.
Just some thoughts. So, reader, what makes your witchcraft real?