Definitions of "Witch" and
"Witchcraft" found in dictionaries
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 precede; conversation 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.
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
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.
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
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
Biblical witches: evil sorcery and poisoning:
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Expert: An expert; e.g. "She is a witch of a writer." This
usage is rare.
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.
Uppity woman: Some Evangelical Christian pastors define a woman who is not submissive to her
husband to be a witch.
Snarl word: A general purpose term for a nasty, vicious person,
typically used to denigrate women.
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.
Ceremonial magician: An individual who can apparently perform
miracles during magic rituals. If male, he would be called a wizard.
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:
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
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.
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":
"A woman believed to have supernatural powers and practice
A follower of a pagan nature religion having its roots in pre-Christian
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:
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.
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.
Wiccans are frequently reported in the media as Witches. 4 Recent articles have dealt with:
High school students being forbidden from wearing the Wiccan symbol -
the pentagram. 5
Army personnel practicing Wiccan rituals on army bases. 6
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"
"Are all Witches equal? - The Harry
Potter books and public confusion about 'witches' and 'witchcraft' " Explains in depth about six unrelated forms of witchcraft.
American Heritage Student Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), P.