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Definitions of "Witch" and
"Witchcraft" found in dictionaries

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Languages are in a continuous state of flux. Some words gradually shift their meaning; other words develop new meanings entirely; still others become obsolete. For example, between 1611 CE (the year that the King James Version of the Bible was published) and now, prevent has grown to mean precedeconversation became manner of living; convince became convict, and carriage became baggage. Bewray, dehort, minish, and wist are no longer used. If an actress today were to say "Dorothy and her gay friends," the audience would probably interpret the phrase quite differently from the screen writer's intent when it appeared in the Wizard of Oz.

One of the main tasks for a lexicographer is to assess whether a new meaning for a word is sufficiently established that an additional dictionary definition is justified. Even if a meaning has been used for years, it may not be included in a dictionary because of space limitations -- there is often room for only the most commonly used definitions. 

This essay will examine the many meanings of the word "Witch" and "Witchcraft" and will suggest which ones are established and in common usage.

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What is a Witch?

A Witch is an individual who engages in Witchcraft. In turn, Witchcraft is what Witches do. By defining Witch, we automatically have described Witchcraft...and vice versa.

15 meanings for Witch are listed in our Glossary of religious terms. They are repeated below. We have labeled each with a short descriptor, to help differentiate them from each other. These labels are not necessarily terms that are in common use.

bullet Gothic Satanist: A worshiper of Satan who, during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, was believed to use black magic to harm others. This typically involved the aid of Satan and his demons. The witch was believed to have rejected Christianity and sold their soul to Satan. They met in the center of the forest at night in events called Witches Sabbaths. There is some speculation that the Christian Church in Western Europe created this hoax for theological reasons -- they had to explain the existence of evil in the world. Others think that the Church wanted to gain a religious monopoly, and branded heretics and Pagans as Witches/Satan worshipers. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Europeans, mostly women, were executed during the "burning times" -- between the mid 15th century and late 18th century. Most people believe that, with the exception of a few deluded and mentally ill individuals, none of these "witches" actually existed. 1

bullet Wiccan: a follower of Wicca, a benign, nature-based religion, which includes beliefs, deities, symbols and seasonal days of celebration of the ancient Celts. Gerald Gardner, an English civil servant, is credited with popularizing Wicca there, in the late 1940s. Wiccans are prohibited from using magic to harm others. Their belief system does not include an all-evil entity. They do not believe in the Christian devil or in  demons. They often refer to themselves as Witches, Pagans and Neopagans. The total number of Wiccans/Witches is difficult to estimate, because so many are isolated, solitary practitioners. They have no real hierarchy and little formal organization. 1 They are generally regarded to be many hundreds of thousands (perhaps a million or more) Witches in the U.S. 3

bulletBiblical witches: evil sorcery and poisoning:
bullet In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament): an evil person who secretly uses spoken curses to intentionally harm others. The Hebrew word for such an individual is m'khashepah or m'khaseph (depending upon gender). Exodus 22:18 is one example. This is sometimes translated as "witch," in some English translations of the Bible -- particularly older versions. "Evil sorceress/sorcerer" would be a less ambiguous term. 1 This type of witch is also similar to ancient Native American usage. 

bullet In the Christian Scriptures (New Testament): a criminal who murders people by secretly preparing and administering poisons. See Galatians 5:19-20. The Greek word here is "pharmakia," from which our English word "pharmacy" originated. Probably because of King James' obsessive fear of evil witches, the Greek word was translated as "witchcraft," in the KJV Bible. "Poisoner" or "murderer" would be less ambiguous terms. 1

bullet Religious Satanist: A follower of modern-day religious Satanism, who recognizes Satan as a virile pre-Christian, pagan entity or principle. Although they normally refer to themselves as Satanists, they occasionally use the term "witch." Anton Szandor LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, wrote a series of three books, one of which is called "The Satanic Witch." There have been estimates of the total number of religious Satanists at 20,000 adults in the U.S. 1 Some believe that the religion has been in decline for many years. But there is no reliable data on either conjecture.

bullet Imaginary witch: A person who inhabits an alternative world of fantasy and magic, filled with good and evil people with magical powers, flying broomsticks, unicorns, dragons, trolls, talking animals, flying keys, magical quills, cloaks that grant invisibility, etc. The Harry Potter books feature this form of imaginary Witchcraft. Males are commonly called "Wizards." They generally perform white (beneficial, healing) magic, but sometimes use harmful magic in self defense, when attacked by evil forces. These witches and wizards do not exist outside of novels. 1

bullet TV witch: A person, usually a very attractive woman, who was born with supernatural abilities and is capable of performing miracles by waving a wand, wiggling a nose, etc. This is often seen in TV programs, like Bewitched or Charmed. This meaning is similar to the one preceding, except that the witches are shown as inhabiting and interacting with the real world. Again, this type of witch is imaginary; none exist in reality.

bullet Follower of Santeria or Vodun: These are Caribbean syncretistic religions which combine elements of tribal African religions with Christianity. Santeria, and Vodun have many hundreds of thousands of American members, largely in New York, Florida, and some southern states. Although these are well established faith groups with much Christian content, they are occasionally referred to as witchcraft.

bullet Witch Doctor: A native healer, often from Africa. A recent report on AIDS indicates that in sub-Sahara Africa, about 85% of sick people seek help from healers rather than medical doctors.

bullet Expert: An expert; e.g. "She is a witch of a writer." This usage is rare.

bullet Water witch: A person who uses a forked stick or other instrument to locate sources of underground material -- typically water. Skeptics doubt that this technique works; water witchers have consistently failed to locate water during scientific studies. But many believe in their abilities.

bullet Uppity woman: Some Evangelical Christian pastors define a woman who is not submissive to her husband to be a witch.

bullet Snarl word: A general purpose term for a nasty, vicious person, typically used to denigrate women.

bullet Non-Christian: Some conservative Christians define a follower of any religion other than Christianity to be a witch. (e.g. a Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, follower of Native American Spirituality, etc.). Their belief is based largely on a Bible passage. 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 states that when Gentiles worship their Gods, they are actually worshiping devils. More details.

bullet Ceremonial magician: An individual who can apparently perform miracles during magic rituals. If male, he would be called a wizard.

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Which meanings of "witchcraft" are established and commonly used?

Most of these definitions have been established for decades or centuries. A few are relative newcomers, including:
bullet Wicca: The terms "Wicca" and "Wiccan" came into common usage in the late 1940's, after Gerald Gardner wrote a series of books on Wicca. Perhaps because of its concern for the environment, its close ties with nature, and its emphasis on sexual equality, Wicca experienced a rapid increase in popularity which continues today. Barnes and Noble estimates a U.S. "Pagan Buying Audience" of 10 million; Other recent estimates of the number of U.S. Wiccans are of the order of 1 to 3 million. 1

bullet Religious Satanism: Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan in 1965. He wrote The Satanic Bible in 1967. Religious Satanism experienced a growth in numbers, partly due to two movies: The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. At their peak, they probably did not include more than about 20,000 members. Other, smaller groups split off from the Church of Satan or were organized separately.

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Which definitions should appear in a dictionary?

We suggest that the American Heritage Student Dictionary is an excellent model to follow. They offer three definitions of "Witch": 
  1. "A woman believed to have supernatural powers and practice sorcery.
  2. A follower of a pagan nature religion having its roots in pre-Christian Europe.
  3. A hag."

Their first definition is for what we have called "Gothic Satanism;" it probably remains the most popular meaning in the U.S. today, because of the lasting influence of the burning times. Unfortunately, this definition lacks precision, because the term "sorcery" can refer to both benign, healing magic and to evil, black magic. It also restricts "witches" to women. Although about 85% of the victims exterminated during the burning times were women, there were many tens of thousands of innocent men who were also executed.

We suggest that the second most important definition should describe Wiccans, as Houghton Mifflin has done. In support of this assertion, we point out:

bullet Every large North American bookstore, like Borders, Barnes and Noble, Chapters, devote a significant percent of their religious bookshelves to Wiccan books. In our closest bookstore, Witchcraft is assigned one bookcase, whereas Christianity is given five.

bullet Wiccans have surpassed many minority religions in America in membership. 3 There are more Wiccans than Buddhists, Hindus, and Unitarian Universalists. Wicca's rate of growth is unusually high, particularly among young people.

bulletWiccans are frequently reported in the media as Witches. 4 Recent articles have dealt with:
bullet High school students being forbidden from wearing the Wiccan symbol - the pentagram. 5

bullet Army personnel practicing Wiccan rituals on army bases.

We suggest that "a hag" is an appropriate meaning as the third most important definition. This also is traceable back to the Burning Times, with a boost from various Walt Disney cartoons.

With the incredible popularity of the Harry Potter books perhaps the concept of imaginary witchcraft might be the fourth most important definition. A description such as the following is recommended: "A female wizard who is said to live in an alternate world filled with magic, imaginary animals, miraculous potions, etc

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  1. "Are all Witches equal? - The Harry Potter books and public confusion about 'witches' and 'witchcraft' " Explains in depth about six unrelated forms of witchcraft.
  2. American Heritage Student Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), P. 1071:
  3. "How many Wiccans are there?" This essay lists many estimates of the number of Wiccans/Pagans/Neopagans in the United States.
  4. Wiccan references in the media, books, etc. A context list.
  5. Wearing of religious and ethnic clothing and jewelry in U.S. public schools.
  6. Wiccan development in the news.
  7. See the Wiccan/Witchcraft menu which has links to dozens of additional essays on this topic.

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Copyright © 2000 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUL-11
Latest update: 2015-APR-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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