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The confusion about "witchcraft"

Meanings used by Wiccans and Cowans (non-Wiccans)

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Religious terminology is often quite ambiguous, unlike words in other fields, such as medicine, science and engineering.

There is general confusion in North American over the meanings of certain religious terms, such as Christian, cult, hell, heaven, occult, Pagan, salvation, Witch, Witchcraft, Unitarian, Universalist, Voodoo, etc. In the newsgroup alt.usage.english, terms like this one are often called "skunk words." They have varied meanings to different people. In fact, they have so many meanings that they often cause misunderstandings if they are used. Unfortunately, many people do not know this, and naturally assume that the meaning that they have been taught is the universal definition of the term.

This section addresses the turmoil generated by multiple definitions of one term: "Witchcraft." There are at least 17 different meanings to that word: some are opposites of each other; others hold fairly similar shades of meaning. 

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Meanings of "Witch" and "Witchcraft" in society generally: 

When a person hears or reads some material on "witchcraft" it is quite important that they identify what kind of activity is being referred to. The six most common sources of meanings of the term "witchcraft" are believed to be:


From the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament);


From the Christian Scriptures (New Testament);


From the "burning times" when the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches and civil courts were executing heretics;


From a modern-day religion, like Wicca. Wicca is a faith group which derives a major part of its inspiration from beliefs, practices, symbols, and seasonal days of celebration of the ancient Celtic people;


From a very different modern-day faith group: religious Satanism; or


From modern-day fantasy novels, like the extremely popular Harry Potter series, or in TV programs like Sabrina, Bewitched, Charmed, etc. 2

These six types of "witchcraft" are definitely not referring to the same beliefs and practices. At best, they have only tenuous connections to each other. Turmoil reigns when a person assumes that two of the above forms of "witchcraft" are are similar or identical.

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Meanings of "Witch" and "witchcraft" among Wiccans:

There is no consensus within the Wiccan community about the precise meaning of "Witch" and "Witchcraft." The most popular usages are:

bullet "Wicca" and "Witchcraft" mean the same thing and are synonyms and can be used interchangeably.
bullet "Wicca" refers to a recently created Earth-centered religion that is partly based on ancient Celtic deities, symbols and seasonal days of celebration. "Witchcraft" refers to a different Pagan spiritual path: a group of traditional practices, often passed down from parents to child.
bullet "Witchcraft" is the religion of "Wicca."

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We recommend that the words "witch" or "witchcraft" never be used in sermons, speeches, articles and essays unless they are carefully pre-defined -- and perhaps not even then. In place of these terms, we recommend specific and unambiguous words and phrases. For example, use:


"Evil sorcerer" or "evil sorceress" when referring to "witchcraft" as mentioned in Exodus 22:18 or elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament.)


"Poisoner" when referring to "witchcraft" as mentioned in Galatians 5:19-20 or elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)


"Heretics" or "Satan worshipers" when referring to the religious beliefs that the victims of the Burning Times were originally believed to follow.


"Wicca" and "Wiccan" when referring to the modern religion of Wicca and its followers.


"Earth-Centered Religion," when referring to modern-day Pagan, earth centered religions. Even better, use the exact name of the religion, like Asatru or Druidism.


"Satanist" when referring to followers of religious Satanism.


"Wizard," "ceremonial magician," "sorcerer," "sorceress" when referring to Harry Potter or similar imaginary characters in creative fiction.


"Traditional Witch" when referring to a follower of traditional witchcraft.


When discussing "witchcraft" as it appears in children's nursery rhymes, the Harry Potter books, and other imaginative fantasy novels, use terms like evil (or good) wizard, magician, sorcerer or sorceress -- depending upon which is the closest match.

Later in the conversation or writing, when the precise type of activity has been identified, then perhaps the "W" word can be introduced. But, even then it is a dangerous term to use. People have attached much fear and emotional baggage to the word.

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Copyright 2000, 2001 & 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUL-7
Latest update: 2004-MAR-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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