by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
“What is a Witch?” is a question that I often joke has more answers than there have ever been Witches, as we each might change our minds more than once, and more definitions arise as more Witches come into knowledge of themselves. It’s beautiful, but can make things confusing for both non-Witches and Witches alike. Yet the questioning of identity, motive, relationship, actions, and consequences are part and parcel of the process of Witch. Yes, I sometimes define Witch as a verb, as one of my own many definitions for Witch is a process that never ends. Witch is the essence of transformation.
When conflict arises around the definition of Witch—be it among academics, seekers, or Witches themselves—it stems from what root that particular person is drawing their own definition from and whether or not they can acknowledge the other roots under the umbrella of Witch.
People get proprietary and think other Witches are describing different things, as there are different types of occultists, magicians, and priests. But they are not Witches. What is Witch can be hard to put a finger on, however, which is part of the elusive nature of the Witch. If you think you have completely defined it, you have lost it.
One of my key concepts of the Witch is the Witch Soul, the unified enlightened consciousness of our sanctified ancestors. Existing outside of space and time, it includes, eventually, all of us. All Witches partake of this oversoul consciousness, the uniting force in an otherwise disparate tradition. While we might not all agree what a Witch is, we recognize our own.
In my understanding of the soul, I view the human soul as multifaceted, an idea found in many traditions, but particularly popular in Egyptian traditions of nine souls. The most basic form is three souls: the higher, middle, and lower. Three souls, like three worlds, are often described like a tree with roots, trunk, and branches. I find it helpful to look to the roots of our Witch Soul to see where we are and where we might be growing, individually and collectively.
The most common roots are those looking to the ancient Pagan past for their Witchcraft. These primal roots speak to our lower soul. Many look to the ancient priestesses and priests of the Temple traditions of the gods, those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and beyond, plus their German and Celtic equivalents. While these people were not known as Witches themselves, we see the holy archetype of magickal priesthood and see ourselves. We look to the mystery cults and their teachers. The cults of Demeter and Persephone, of Isis and Osiris, and of Artemis speak to us of Witchcraft. They were later vilified by the Christian traditions. Here we have the roots of the Witch in occultism and the Western Mystery Tradition.
Others are dismayed by this idea. To them, the Witches were those of the illicit religions, of the crossroads and farm, not of the Temples. Pagan Witches were often still mistrusted, with a focus on necromancy, plants, and poisons, and if priestesses, not in the Temples. Circe and Medea are the archetypes, and while possibly vilified by the patriarchy of their time, they are wild and free. These are the true Witches of antiquity still haunting around the edges of civilized society.
Others still see those who came before this divide, our Stone Age ancestors, in our common shamanic roots of hunter/gatherer civilization. While a debated word today, what has become known as shamanism depicts a similar cosmology and system of techniques for interfacing with spirits and nature found in many places across the world. Only with the coming of agriculture did these traditions and roles divide into urban temples and wild places. Before that, the village and the wilds were the places of magick. This was the true source of Witches.
Entwined in the soul complex is the shadow, that which is repressed in us. One might argue the most vocal new contingent of Witchcrafts aligned with the shadow are those focused on post-Christian Medieval Witches and Cunning folk. Most did not identify as Witches and probably were not. Some were self-identified as “white witches,” meaning doing good not evil in their time period. And buried in trial transcripts and confession is some intriguing Witchcraft more useful for us today. We also have the folkloric Halloween-style Witch rather than the beautiful priestess. A resurgence of Traditional Craft has come emphasizing these symbols and figures as true Witchcraft, often in response to Wicca’s popularity and growing neo-tribal practices. And this root is just as valid as all the others, but not necessarily more valid.
Those who claim today’s Witches must exclusively be of one of these roots would also have to embrace a range of things rather unpleasant and not conducive to modern life and relationships. Medieval-rooted Witches would have to live on the edge of society and be generally shunned and held with suspicion. While many of us can feel that way, few of us truly live that way. Illicit Pagan Witches would be fairly solitary in life as well and go around literally poisoning people as well as being considered fairly unkempt and dirty by today’s standards. Pagan priests would dedicate themselves full time to a temple often with no career prospects outside. While coven leaders may feel that way at times, that’s not quite true either. The modern Witch is, well, modern and does not conform to any one of these things because we draw from all, but have made our own way in our own age.
In our middle soul, the expression of the Craft in our life occurs in three major forms. For some it is the older traditions of occult orders, those seeking the secrets of the mystery traditions and the school of the soul. These are the covens, lodges, and formal groups. Others see the Craft as social, therapeutic, and expressive, as found in looser circles and tribal festivals where dancing, singing, and art are emphasized. We have those who are deeply devoted to the gods and the old ways, seeking reconstruction and tradition through service to gods and community. They are living a religious culture of Paganism and Witchcraft.
And in our higher soul, we see our Witchcraft triple flowering again in science, art, and religion. All are mystical at this level, but it’s the seeking of the philosopher learning cosmology and wisdom. There is the artist expressing the voice and form of the divine. And there is the minister, seeing the divine not only in the gods, but in the people serving them and the word. They experience the interconnection of all things through service.
All together, three souls with three expressions and a shadow give us the ways of looking at the Witch. In each level, we see some common thread. Ancient priesthoods of the lower soul give rise to the occultists of the Western Mysteries in the middle and the philosopher mystics of the higher soul. Illicit ancients of the lower soul give rise to the looser circles of expression who in turn rise to the artist of the divine in the higher soul. Shamanic ancestors of the lower soul and its shadow of the Medieval Witch and Cunning folk give rise to those deeply devoted to the old ways and spirit traditions of the middle soul, who in turn rise to ministers living in service to the greater good. Or at least that is one set of combinations for me. For you, perhaps there is a different understanding.
To prevent yourself from getting too comfortable in any one view, any one definition of Witch and its roots in the Witch Soul, I suggest a crafting contemplation. This is particularly helpful if you feel fundamentally in conflict with others or disconnected from the greater community, as we all do at one time or another.
Start with three threads of yarn for the lower, middle, and higher souls, in whatever colors feel appropriate, with black, red, and white being the most traditional. Anoint the lower soul thread with something deep, such as myrrh, patchouli, or cypress oil. Think of the roots of the Witch soul in the ancient world all the way through to the shadow of the Medieval sabbatic Witch.
Anoint the middle soul thread with something like cedar, pine, or benzoin, and contemplate Witchcraft community and Paganism today.
Anoint the higher soul thread with something heavenly, such as frankincense, sandalwood, or amber. As you do, think of the mystical side of our craft, where our magick eventually leads us in the contemplation of the bigger questions of life and the mysteries.
Then braid together the three scented strands. When ready, tie them around either your left wrist or left ankle. Whenever you become aware of the bracelet/anklet on your skin, think about all the different kinds of Witches out there, and how all are part of the greater Witch Soul. Despite any disagreements or conflict, we have a deep connection.
Continue this until the threads naturally break down and fall away. You’ll find over this extended period a greater appreciation and understanding of your fellows in the Craft, however you, or they, define it.