Why “Witchcraft”?

by Christopher Penczak, Temple Founder and Sagittarius Lead Minister

Why would someone in this modern day and age, someone of sound mind and body, go around calling themselves a “Witch”? Why would you use that word? Witches are evil, old women out to steal children, eat babies, and cause all manner of illness and strife, right? That is certainly the image many people have of the Witch: the green skinned, hooked-nose, hagged-face woman with a pointed hat riding around on a broom, brought to us most clearly by modern Halloween decorations. Those were exactly my thoughts fifteen years ago, when my first teacher used the “W” word with me. Little did I know then that I would later so strongly identify with the word Witch, and find it so empowering for me and the people in my community, that I would use it to describe myself, too. In fact I found it so important to my spiritual practice, I co-founded an organization called the Temple of Witchcraft.

Since founding our tradition, I’ve realized how difficult it can be to operate in the mainstream world with the word “Witchcraft” in your name. It can be tough when listing religious services in newspapers, working with hospitals and prisons, yet—as a legal church—that is a part of our ministry and outreach. I’ve had several people, people whom I love, admire, and respect working on the fringes of traditional healing—yoga teachers, Reiki masters, and homeopaths—and even they ask: “Why not use another word? Why not call it something else? You’d get more people interested in all the good work you do if you just changed that one word. Have you thought about that?”

We did. Truly. For a short time, we were going to call ourselves the “Temple of Wisdom,” as that name also embodied our principles. We look at Witchcraft as a wisdom tradition. Yet, if we, in this modern and “enlightened” age, don’t take a stand and call ourselves what we really are, who will? It’s much like asking a Christian organization, if Christianity were not so mainstream, to remove “Christ” from their name and teachings and just talk about “love.” While love is at the heart of Christian teachings, for a good Christian, such wisdom comes to us through the figure of Christ. For a Christian to deny him would be akin to following in the footsteps of the apostle who denied Christ on the night he was betrayed. Christians grew as a tradition by living their faith with courage. Can we do any less?

I am a Witch. What I learned from my teachers is Witchcraft. They referred to themselves as Witches, and their teachers before them also called themselves Witches. While we imagine long unbroken lineages of Witch traditions and families stretching through the centuries, popular scholarship now discourages that idea, but the name and identity had to come from somewhere. As modern Witchcraft was just coming out of the shadows, a new vocabulary was growing, and we used it to help introduce ourselves to our family, friends, and the world in a gentler manner.

If someone asked us what we practiced religiously, we would start with the words “Earth Religion.” If they asked questions or expressed an openness, we might use the word “Pagan.” Pagan is now a catch-all term for Earth traditions based upon mostly European cultures. It’s a Latin word used to refer to the people in the rural areas who had not quite converted to Christianity, so they were still pagan. Some Pagans adopt the term in the Christian sense, meaning non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic, or non-monotheistic, and adopt all other cultures into their paganism, including Asian, African and South American cultures.

If the word Pagan didn’t cause any stir, we might then use the word “Wicca.” Wicca is the modern, first legally legally-recognized term for our practices in the United States. For a long time, it was synonymous in our communities with the religion of Witchcraft, as there was not much variety. But Wicca was a less scary word for people outside of our communities, when compared to Witchcraft. Today, Wicca refers to two complimentary, but different streams of teachings. The first is British Traditional Wicca, specifically the traditions known as Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, and their immediate offshoots. Interestingly enough, the founders of those traditions usually spelled it Wica, but it was fairly synonymous with Witchcraft. To be in those traditions, you must be trained and initiated by a qualified teacher or coven who has the authority to initiate. Mostly due to the independent streak of America, Solitary Wicca or Eclectic Wicca grew out of those teachings, but one had no formal training, and anyone could self self-declare or self self-initiate without the blessings of a group or teacher. Information was shared in books, online and through simple, non-hierarchical circles.

If the person we were speaking to was not frightened by the word Wicca, then we said we were a Witch, and what we practiced was Witchcraft. We had laid sufficient groundwork to have a dialogue. But today, we are much more out-of-the-shadows, with wider legal recognition, federally-recognized religious organizations, and even guidelines for military chaplains ministering to Wiccan and Pagan enlisted personnel. While such previous conversations were helpful, we must move forward to be recognized in our communities without apology. We are always happy to speak, to educate, and to work with people, but no other religion has to—or should—apologize for its name. We realize our traditions, theology, and history are different from the vast majority of mainstream traditions currently recognized and that we run the risk of conforming too much to other organizations in order to be better recognized by the public, losing what makes Witchcraft so valuable and special for us in the first place. We don’t worship in vast congregations or have the same ecclesiastical hierarchies. We don’t see the world in the same way. We must preserve, develop, and share our particular viewpoint, and we can’t do that if we are not true to ourselves.

The word Witchcraft is important to me. While we might be not be practicing what our spiritual ancestors did centuries ago, the same can be said of many other religions that have grown and developed. But the identity of the Witch throughout many times and cultures is a part of our cultural inheritance. We are reverent of the Earth and our ancestors, and without a solid foundation in who, what, and where we have been, we cannot hope to forge a future. To divorce ourselves from our past is to lose valuable lessons in areas of religion, society, and power. Without our roots, we’d wither. We’ve managed to survive and regenerate due to the strong roots we have.

To understand the word helps us untangle misconceptions from the past and create a new future within the evolving global society, rather than completely outside it. There will always be something “fringe” or “other” to our tradition, for it is a Mystery Religion that is not for everyone. We do not profess to have the answer for everyone. We simply hold upon open one of many gates into deeper wisdom.

Wicca is actually an old term for a male Witch and wicce for female, and forms the root of our word Witchcraft. While in our mythic view many have translated Wicca as related to the words for wise, the most current etymological understanding is that is relates to terms meaning “to bend or shape” referring to our magick and healing. A wiccan simply means “to practice witchcraft” in Old English. As we trace the etymology back, we enter into trickier waters, as words with such a strong cultural bias as Witchcraft can be distorted. This is the etymology I learned, though admittedly it was from a Witch, so her interest was in furthering a positive image of the Old Religion, as she called it. But such a lineage does help those on the outside to understand how Witches see themselves, even if scholarship proves to be more mythic than factual. The Middle High High German wicken means “to bewitch or divine the future.” It is traced to the Old German wih, meaning “holy.” The Old Normal Norman word ve is most likely related, and it means “temple.” That is one of the reasons why we consider ourselves a temple tradition, and use the name Temple of Witchcraft, even though our temples are just as likely to be roofed by the sky and stars as they are to be physical buildings.

So with that perspective, you can see why restoring the understanding of our tradition and practice as “holy” is so important to me. That is why I use the word Witch to describe myself, and connect to my long line of spiritual ancestors. And that is why I use the name Witchcraft proudly to describe my path. Those who are drawn to our path resonate with the word. It is a beacon that gathers us. When I’ve taught the same material under the banner of Earth Spirituality, it drew fewer and less magickally-inclined individuals. If everyone who identifies with the word were to use it, and be able to speak about it both personally and historically, we’d do well in evolving our culture’s understanding of our path. That is a big part of our mission in the Temple of Witchcraft.

Temple of Witchcraft