The modern English word witchcraft has three principal connotations:
The practice of magic or sorcery worldwide; the beliefs associated with the Western witch hunts of the 14th to the 18th century; and varieties of the modern movement called Wicca, frequently mispronounced “wikka.” The terms witchcraft and witch derive from Old English wiccecraeft: from wicca(masculine) or wicce (feminine), pronounced “witchah” and “witchuh,” respectively, denoting someone who practices sorcery; and from craeft meaning “craft” or “skill.” Roughly equivalent words in other European languages—such as sorcellerie (French), Hexerei (German), stregoneria (Italian), and brujería (Spanish)—have different connotations, and none precisely translates another. The difficulty is even greater with the relevant words in African, Asian, and other languages.
The period of witch trials in Early Modern Europe were a widespread moral panic suggesting that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom during the 15th to 18th centuries. Those accused of witchcraft were portrayed as being worshipers of the Devil, who engaged in such acts as malevolent sorcery at meetings known as Witches Sabbaths. Many people were subsequently accused of being witches, and were put on trial for the crime, with varying punishments being applicable in different regions and at different times. While early trials fall still within the Late Medieval period, the peak of the witch hunt was during the period of the European wars of religion, peaking between about 1580 and 1630. The witch hunts declined in the early 18th century.
In Great Britain, their end is marked by the Witchcraft Act of 1735. But sporadic witch-trials continued to be held during the second half of the 18th century, the last known dating to 1782, though a prosecution was commenced in Tennessee as recently as 1833.
Over the entire duration of the phenomenon of some three centuries, an estimated total of between 40,000 and 60,000 people were executed. Among the best known of these trials were the Scottish North Berwick witch trials, Swedish Torsåker witch trials and the American Salem witch trials. Among the largest and most notable were the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631) and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631). The sociological causes of the witch-hunts have long been debated in scholarship. Mainstream historiography sees the reason for the witch craze in a complex interplay of various factors that mark the early modern period, including the religious sectarianism in the wake of the Reformation, besides other religious, societal, economic and climatic factors.
This tradition’s name pays tribute to its founder, Alex Sanders, and also to the ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt, once the largest library in the world and a repository of sacred, mystical wisdom. Alexandrian Wicca was established in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Recommended Reading: The Temple of High Witchcraft, by Christopher Penczak
As atheists, these witches do not acknowledge a Supreme Creator or the Wiccan conception of a Lord and Lady; but work their magic using Earth’s natural powers and energies. Some may work with elemental spirits such as land spirits or fairies.
This tradition, based on the teachings of Salem witch Laurie Cabot, emphasizes that witchcraft is a science, art, and religion. The Cabot Tradition also emphasizes psychic development. Recommended Reading: Power of the Witch: the Earth, the Moon, and the Magical Path to Enlightenment by Laurie Cabot
There is no one specific school of Chaos Magic, also spelled Chaos Magick, nor do its practitioners adhere to one specific philosophy or spiritual tradition. Instead those who define themselves as chaos magicians share a certain attitude toward magic. Chaos Magic is defined as the primal creative force in the universe. Chaos magicians learn and experiment with various magical techniques in order to tap into this underlying, primal, creative force in whatever ways work best and most effectively for them. Chaos Magic is influenced by the work of visionary artist and magician Austin Osman Spare, who wrote, “What is there to believe, but in Self?” Recommended Reading: Liber Null & Psychonaut: An Introduction to Chaos Magick by Peter Carroll
The Clan of Tubal Cain:
This tradition, founded by English witch Robert Cochrane, is based on practical traditional witchcraft, shamanism, Celtic mysticism, and Cochrane’s interpretation of Druidry. The American branch of the Clan of Tubal Cain is known as the 1734 Tradition. Recommended Reading: The Roebuck in the Thicket by Evan John Jones and Robert Cochrane
Sometimes also called Wimmin’s Religion, Dianic Wicca is a feminist spiritual tradition and the only form of witchcraft that is exclusively female. Women’s rights and rites are combined in celebration of female divinity. The name of the tradition pays tribute to the Italian goddess, Diana. Among Dianic Wicca’s founding mothers is author Z. Budapest, who formed the Susan B. Anthony Coven in Los Angeles on the Winter Solstice of 1971. In 1975, Budapest self-published The Feminist Book of Lights and Shadows, a collection of rituals and spells that became the basic text of Dianic Wicca. It has since been republished as The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries: Feminist Witchcraft, Goddess Rituals, Spellcasting and Other Womanly Arts . . . . Dianic Wicca may be considered similar in essence to the women’s mystery traditions of ancient Rome. Most Dianic covens are exclusively female. Sybil Leek sometimes called her own tradition Dianic, but what she practiced was not the same as Dianic Wicca. Recommended Reading: The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries by Z. Budapest
This shamanic tradition involves actual interaction with fairies. Faerie witches, also spelled fairy witches, practice Earth-centered magic with emphasis on plant and animal familiars. Historically, many witches have worshiped and communed with fairies. In 1662, while being interrogated, Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie described her visits to the Fairy Queen. Similar testimony was given in French, Italian, and Hungarian witch trials. Faerie Witchcraft is profoundly influenced by Scottish clergyman Reverend Robert Kirk’s mysterious account of Fairyland, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies, written in 1691 but not published until the early 19th century. Influential modern practitioners of Faerie Witchcraft include authors R. J. Stewart and Aline DeWinter. Faerie Witchcraft is not the same as Feri Tradition, nor is it the same as the various Wiccan traditions identified as Fairy Wicca. Recommended Reading: Tree of Enchantment by Orion Foxwood
This shamanic, ecstatic, initiatory, spiritual, and magical system, also sometimes spelled Fairy, Faery, or Faerie Tradition, began its modern incarnation in the 1940s when author, poet, and witch Victor Anderson (1917–2001) began initiations. Anderson is typically described as Feri’s “founder,” but he described himself as a transmitter of ancient information. Another branch of Feri Tradition is known as Vicia. Anderson taught that Feri Tradition derives originally from a primordial people who emerged from Africa thousands of years ago, the original fairies—although they are known by many other names in different cultures. Their teachings were transmitted orally over the generations. Feri is an experiential tradition and various distinct Feri lineages and teachers now exist. Different lineages are influenced to different extents by different spiritual traditions including Celtic, Hawaiian, and Vodou.
What most Feri practitioners share in common is direct personal interaction with spirits or deities. They do not subscribe to the Wiccan Rede (Do what you will but harm none); instead, each practitioner must take personal responsibility for her or his own actions. Recommended Reading: Evolutionary Witchcraft by T. Thorn Coyle
Gardnerian Wicca is the oldest, most formal modern Wiccan tradition. Based on the teachings and practices of Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), it is named “Gardnerian” in order to honor him but also to distinguish this tradition from older, less formalized traditions. The term Gardnerian Wicca may originally have been coined by Robert Cochrane, who was not a fan of Gardner or of his tradition. Its standard text is The Gardnerian Book of Shadows, which Gardner co-authoredwith Diane Valiente. At the time of its writing, Valiente and Gardner believed that they were involved in the evolution of an old faith, not the creation of a new one. Recommended Reading: The Meaning of Witchcraft by Gerald B. Gardner
No initiation is necessary to be a hedge witch. Hedge witches are unaffiliated, solitary practitioners. The term “hedge witch” derives from “hedge rider” and similar northern European synonyms for witch. A hedge is a dense wall of bushes and other shrubbery. Once upon a time, large, dense hedgerows separated a village from surrounding forests. The hedge is a liminal zone, simultaneously a barrier and a threshold between the civilized world and wild nature. Witches were the hedge-riders who navigated this zone.
The modern term “hedge witch” is sometimes used as a synonym for “kitchen witch” or is intended to serve as an all-encompassing name for the large community of non-affiliated, non-initiated, non-Wiccan witches. The term “hedge witch,” however, possesses shamanic undertones. By definition, a hedge rider or hedge witch travels between at least two worlds: the world of conventional reality and a spirit or afterlife realm. Recommended Reading: The Way of the Hedgewitch by Arin Murphy-Hiscock
By definition, a hereditary witch comes from a family in which at least one other person is or was a witch. Most hereditary witches derive from a lineage of witches; the trait is often passed down from parent to child, although sometimes generations are skipped. The term is also sometimes used by someone with one long-ago ancestor who was a witch or believed to be one. “Hereditary witch” is not a definitive term, and different people may interpret it in different ways. Some hereditary witches share traditions that are unique to their own families, but others do not. Fictional witches are very frequently hereditary; for instance, the Halliwell Sisters from the television series Charmed, or the Pure Bloods of the Harry Potter universe. Most modern witches are not hereditary. Recommended Reading: Hereditary Witchcraft by Raven Grimassi
A high percentage of the enslaved Africans in the pre-Civil War United States were of Congolese origin. They brought a sophisticated system of magic with them to North America, where it merged with European folk magic, Native American, and other African traditions to form a whole new magical system now called Hoodoo.
A practitioner of Hoodoo is traditionally known as a “worker.” Hoodoo is very closely related to New Orleans Voodoo; the names are sometimes used interchangeably. Hoodoo is a system of practical magic, not a specific spiritual tradition. Hoodoo practitioners may belong to any or no religion.
There are Pagan, atheist, and Jewish Hoodoo workers, for instance. Some Hoodoo traditions are intensely Christian. Many Hoodooers incorporate sacred texts into their practice, especially the Book of Psalms or the Book of Job. Recommended Reading: The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, by Denise Alvarado
Most modern witches are not affiliated with any one specific tradition. Most witches incorporate whatever works for them or complements their own spiritual beliefs. Urban witches, in particular, may have many influences that are then integrated and incorporated in independent and eclectic ways. No one category may be sufficient to identify their practice; hence they are independent and eclectic. Recommended Reading: City Magick, by Christopher Penczak
Jewitchery: This informal and eclectic tradition incorporates witchcraft, magical practice, and often shamanism with Judaism or Jewish self-awareness. Emphasis is placed on individualism. A Jewitch may or may not be a religious Jew. Judaism may be understood as a tribal group rather than as religion, and so essentially a Jewitch is someone who identifies as both Jewish and as a witch.
Some Jewitches incorporate traditional Jewish folk magic or Jewish angelology into their practice. Others identify with pre-exile or pre-Second Temple Jewish traditions that may have been less monotheistic than modern Judaism.
Still others identify with Canaanite traditions. Jewitches may or may not also consider themselves Jewish Pagans. Some Jewitches are Wiccan; others are not. Recommended Reading: Magickal Judaism, by Jennifer Hunter
Kitchen witchery is a practice, rather than a specific spiritual or magical tradition. What distinguishes the kitchen witch from other witches is that the majority of her tools and ingredients are readily found in the home. A kitchen witch can cast a spell using ingredients found in her kitchen cupboards. Her magical tools may or may not be indistinguishable from ordinary household tools. The concept of kitchen witchery is ancient.
For centuries, it was not safe to be an obvious witch. Low-key, discreet magical practice helped keep witchcraft—and witches—alive. Most kitchen witches are solitary practitioners who are well-versed (or learning to be well-versed) in herb lore and folk magic. Much kitchen witchery involves magical protection of the home and family. Associations with the kitchen are no accident; spells are often cast in the form of delicious meals. A kitchen witch might be conscious of stirring eggs in a clockwise (also known as sun-wise) direction, for instance, in order to draw in positive solar energy.
A synonym for kitchen witch is hearth witch. A kitchen witch also refers to a kind of doll, a household amulet in the form of a flying witch that is traditionally hung up in the kitchen to bring good luck. These kitchen witches are of Scandinavian origin and recall Swedish Easter witches. (In Sweden, witches are associated with Easter, rather than Halloween. Children dress up as witches for parades and folkloric traditions similar to American trick-or-treating. Swedish Easter witches wear the guise of old peasant women, rather than black hats and dresses.) Recommended Reading: Kitchen Witchery, by Marilyn F. Daniel
This term was invented in response to the now-common assumption that all modern witches are Wiccan. Non-Wiccan witches may belong to any tradition other than modern Wicca. Non-Wiccan witches may belong to any spiritual or religious tradition or none—agnostic or atheist witches are typically considered non-Wiccan. Shamanic witches who perceive spirits as unique individual beings rather than as aspects of the Lord and Lady may also identify as non-Wiccan. Those who do not subscribe to the Wiccan Rede are, by definition, non-Wiccan.
By definition, shamanic witches blend elements of shamanism into their witchcraft. Some use the term “shamanic witch” to indicate a spirit worker, but a shamanic witch may incorporate trance and shamanic soul journeying into her practice, practices not necessarily done by a spirit worker. Recommended Reading: The Shamanic Witch, by Gail Wood
This is a loose definition; there are many schools and kinds of Traditional Witchcraft. Essentially, traditional witches are practitioners of forms of witchcraft that pre-date modern Wicca and New Age practices. Some people use this term to refer to hereditary traditions that are exclusive to specific families.
Others use the term for specifically British traditions pre-dating Gardnerian Wicca. Others consider traditional witchcraft to be a worldwide phenomenon that refers to any practitioner of folk magic. Recommended Reading: Old World Witchcraft, by Raven Grimassi
Wicca : Although some people use the word “Wiccan” as a synonym for any kind of witch, in general, Wiccans perceive Wicca to be a specific religion or spiritual tradition, not just magical practice, which may or may not be encouraged.
By definition, Wiccans subscribe to the Wiccan Rede, which states, Do what you will but harm none. (Rede is an archaic word for “rule.”) Those who do not subscribe to the rede are not Wiccan. Wiccans worship a male and a female deity, the Lord and the Lady.
(Dianic Wicca is an exception, as most Dianic Wiccans only worship the feminine divine.) Wicca has a religious calendar, as does any other religion. Festivals, known as sabbats and esbats, honor the Wheel of the Year, the cyclical turning of nature’s seasons. The most famous Wiccan sabbat is Samhain, which falls on Halloween.
Other Wiccan sabbats include Beltane, Imbolc, and Yule. Wicca tends to be an initiatory religion, but it is not exclusively so. There are different denominations of Wicca, with different rules and restrictions, in the same way as Protestant denominations.
Modern Wicca is based on the teachings of Gerald Gardner, but the word is also sometimes used to refer to pre-Gardnerian British witchcraft traditions, as in A Journal of the Rhiannon Ryall’s 1989 book, West Country Wicca:Old Religion. To add to the confusion, there are also those, usually outsiders to witchcraft, who perceive the word “witch” to be derogatory, like a racial slur.
They may use the word “Wiccan,” perceived as less offensive, as a generic synonym for “witch” because they are trying their best to be polite. Recommended Reading: too many to mention, but start with The Wicca Handbook, by Eileen Holland’,’xx’,1),