Witchcraft 101

Witchcraft 101

Pagan Beliefs

What is a Pagan? What is a Witch?
Some words you may hear used to describe Witchcraft and related spiritual movements are: Paganism, Neo-Paganism, Wicca, the Old Religion, and the Craft. Some people also refer to Earth-based spirituality or Goddess spirituality. Although there are commonalities among those who practice these faiths, it is important to realize that each Pagan has a unique set of beliefs and practices.

Paganism is an umbrella term which encompasses a variety of spiritual paths and traditions. The main element which these paths have in common is their view of nature as sacred. An emphasis on the female divine or Goddess is also common. (Some people prefer to use the word Neo-Paganism in order to differentiate this modern practice from ancient Paganism, e.g. Greek or Egyptian religion.)

What I call Witchcraft is only one denomination of paganism; there are many other systems. Wicca is a particular tradition of witchcraft (more on this later). On this page, many of the things I am describing come from - or are influenced by - Wiccan practices, but I am not specifically describing Wicca.

As an important side note, I want to mention that the term "witchcraft" means many different things in different cultures and in different contexts. Some people consider this term to include any practitioners of any form of magic. In these pages, I usually use the term to refer specifically to the movement of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft. But in other contexts, you will probably hear other meanings for the word. It's a good idea to ask if you're not sure what someone means.
Whom do we worship?
Many Pagans choose to honor ancient gods and goddesses - Celtic, Egyptian, Greek, Sumerian, and so on; some choose one pantheon (Greek, for example) to work with, while others are more eclectic and work with whichever divinity seems right to them at the time. Many Witches today (especially Wiccans) feel that divine energy manifests itself in a male-female polarity - the God and the Goddess. While Witches may focus exclusively on the Goddess (or the God) in their worship, most consider that the divine includes both "masculine" and "feminine." Most also call on the powers of the four elements - earth, air, fire, and water. (For a more in-depth answer to this question, check out my page on pagans and theology).
How long have we been doing this?
Modern Witchcraft is said to be derived from folk customs and older traditions of pagan worship, but the form in which we now see these traditions manifested is relatively new, having been made public by a man named Gerald Gardner in the 1950's. Gardner claimed that ancient pagan practices had been passed down through the Middle Ages and that there were hidden covens still performing these rites, although there is no evidence of this. Gardner introduced a system of worship called Wicca, which is one of modern Paganism's predominant forms. (For more information about how modern Witchcraft got started, read my History of Pagan Movements page.)

Wiccans tend to make the most use of Celtic, Greek, and Egyptian pantheons; the God is usually seen as the Sun God, and the Goddess as the Triple Goddess - Maiden, Mother, and Crone - corresponding to the phases of the moon. There are many Pagans who do not identify as Wiccan, but most Pagan practices are at least somewhat influenced by Wicca (with the notable exception of the Ásatru and other purely reconstructionist groups).
Do we use magic?
Witches also believe that we can work with natural energies to create change. This is known as magic (some spell it magick to differentiate it from stage illusion). Most Witches follow the ethical code summed up by the Wiccan Rede: An it harm none, do as ye will (Or, in more modern language, do what you want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone). For most people, this means that we consider it unethical to work magick on another person without asking his/her permission, or to work magick that will hurt anyone. (If this doesn't reassure you, consider that since most Witches believe that you will get back what you send out - many even say threefold - it is in our best interests to follow these guidelines!)

Pagans also generally believe in the interconnectedness of all things, and feel that harm done to one being is harm done to all. For this reason, many Pagans are concerned about ecology and the well-being of the Earth. (See, I told you it was a nature-based religion!)

My Understanding Magick page gives more in depth information about how magick works.
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Pagan ritual is a set of actions designed for one or both of two purposes. One is the performance of magick, often involving the use of symbols which speak to the subconscious and help focus our energy; the other is the celebration of changes in the seasons, especially as they relate to our growth and development (on both the individual and community levels).

Witches often meet in groups called covens, comprised of between three and thirteen people. However, many Witches - by choice or by necessity - work alone; they are called solitaries. In addition, sometimes Witches hold circles - group rituals which are not affiliated with a coven. These may be private (as with informal rituals among a group of friends) or public (open to all, usually advertised in Pagan stores or on the web).

Witches' seasonal festivals, also known as Sabbats, are roughly as follows. (Some are known by more than one name.)
Yule (Winter Solstice):
This is a time of rebirth; the God is born, and light is returning to the earth. This is a time to celebrate making it through the longest night. Many Witches stay up all night to watch the sun rise, or keep candles burning until morning. We also like to celebrate with stories, songs, and good company.
Imbolc (Brigid): February 2.
The first faint stirrings of spring. In some mythologies, the infant God is being nursed by his mother, the young Goddess. This feast is also a celebration of Brigid, the Celtic goddess of healing, poetry, and smithcraft. It is a time for new beginnings, including initiation or dedication.
Ostara (Spring Equinox):
The beginning of spring; the earth is awakening, and we celebrate life and growing. The name comes from the Teutonic goddess Eostre, after whom Easter was named. Many Witches honor the God and Goddess as youth and maiden.
Beltane (May Day): May 1.
A celebration of the union of the God and Goddess and the fertility of the land. Also a good time for self-blessings and land blessings. We often celebrate this holiday by dancing the Maypole.
Litha (Midsummer, Summer Solstice):
The height of summer, and a good time for magickal workings because of the abundance of energy. Many Witches celebrate the God in particular on this holiday.
Lammas (Lughnasadh): August 2.
The first harvest and a time for giving thanks for the gifts of the earth. The Goddess is often seen as the bountiful Mother.
Mabon (Fall Equinox):
We celebrate the second harvest and fruits of autumn. At this time there is a balance between light and darkness; afterwards, the balance shifts toward darkness.
Samhain: October 31.
The death of the God; the Goddess is seen as the Crone. This is often called the Witches' New Year. It is a time for communicating with, honoring, and letting go of our dead. (The name is pronounced "Sow [rhymes with "now"] - in")
This set of holidays is made up of the solstices, the equinoxes, and four days in between which we call "cross-quarters." The cross-quarter holidays are primarily Celtic in origin, although some of them were celebrated in other ancient cultures as well. The solstices and the equinoxes represent the cycles of the sun; some of these were celebrated by ancient cultures as well (for example, the Winter Solstice was celebrated by Romans).

Some of these holidays were appropriated by early Christians who wanted to gain followers; for example, no one knew the date of Jesus' birth, but it was rumored to have been on the 25th of some month, probably in the spring. Christian leaders placed it near the Winter Solstice, figuring that this would make it easier to assimilate pagans, as their existing celebrations were thematically similar.

As well as meeting on these eight festivals, Witches often celebrate the full moon, and sometimes the new moon as well. These times are known as Esbats, and are more commonly used than the Sabbats for magickal workings. Magick to help things grow or increase is usually performed at the full moon (or the waxing moon); magick to banish or release things is usually performed at the new moon (or the waning moon).

Going to your first Pagan ritual? Check out Pagan Ritual Etiquette: A Primer.

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Witches use a number of different tools, none of which are necessary to perform rituals, but which aid concentration by providing symbols for the subconscious to focus on. You may see some of these on a Witch's altar, as well as other items with personal meaning (a photograph, a memento, etc.). A note here: It is considered rude to touch a Witch's tools or pick up things from a Witch's altar without asking. These are very personal items for most people. Some Witches may not mind at all if you handle their tools, but others may be extremely offended.

Here are some of the main tools you are likely to come across.
athame: This is a ceremonial knife used to direct energy. It is traditionally black-handled and two-edged, and the blade is usually dull. (Note: "Athame" is pronounced in a wide variety of ways, the most common being "A [as in bat] - thuh - may"; I also commonly hear "Uh-thah-may".)
bolline: This knife is used for acts such as cutting herbs or carving runes into candles. It is traditionally white-handled. (Some traditions simply use an athame for both magickal and practical functions)
broom: No, brooms are not usually used for riding! They are used in a practical sense - to sweep out a ritual space - and a symbolic sense - to clean the ritual space of negative energy.
candles: Candles are an important part of most Pagan rituals. They often are chosen with attention to color symbolism; they can be charged with energy and burned as a magical act; or they can simply provide atmosphere.
cauldron: The cauldron is often viewed as a symbol of the Goddess, because of its association with the Celtic goddess Cerridwen. It can be filled with water or used as a sacred container in which to burn herbs, paper, etc.
chalice: The chalice, which is also seen as a symbol of the Goddess, is used to drink from. Often the contents are charged with magickal or divine energy.
incense: Like candles, incense is mainly used to strengthen the symbolism of the ritual, as certain scents are associated with particular types of magick. Burning incense can often be a means of purification.
wand: The wand, like the athame, is used as a conductor of energy. While many Witches prefer to simply select a stick of wood which feels right to them, others have ornate wands made of glass or crystal and decorated with gems.
As I stated before, none of these tools are necessary for ritual. It is not a good idea to become so dependent on tools that you are unable to perform ritual without them, as in, "But we can't do a ritual here! I don't have my athame with me!"

If you are reading this and thinking, "How will I ever afford all this?", then repeat to yourself three times: "I don't actually need ANY of these things for ritual, and I certainly don't need them all at once." You can also check out my Tips for the Frugal Pagan page, on how to save money when finding tools and setting up your altar.

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Other Frequently Asked Questions

1. Are you Satanists?
No. Modern Pagans do not believe in Satan. We generally consider that Satan is a part of the Christian belief system. However, there are Satanists who call themselves witches. This can be confusing for people who don't know much about either system, but the truth is that Satanic witches are pretty easy to differentiate from Pagan witches by simply asking about beliefs and practices.

I'm by no means an expert on Satanism; but here is what I do know. First, hysterical reports of the prevalence of Satanism and the horrible deeds performed by Satanists are generally false or misleading. Satanism is not a particularly widespread movement, and there is very little - if any - evidence that its followers commit atrocities. Second, those who call themselves Satanists may fall into several categories. Take a look at this Wikipedia article on Satanism to get some idea about the different movements of Satanists. Most of them are not what you think they are.
2. Why do Witches wear those pentagrams?
First of all, a "pentagram" is a five-pointed star; a "pentacle" is a five-pointed star with a circle around it. So what you are probably seeing is a pentacle. Usually Witches wear the pentacle with one point up, while Satanists wear it inverted (with two points up). I have heard several reasons given for this: (1) that Satanists invert the pentacle just as they invert the cross, to distort these religious symbols; (2) that the two points up represent the horns of the devil; or (3) the pentacle with two points up represents the ascendance of matter over spirit, whereas one point up represents spirit ruling matter. You can take your pick, or do your own research.

Many Witches wear pentacles as symbols of their faith. Witches wear them for different reasons. A Witch's pentacle may hold a profound spiritual meaning for her/him, or it may just be a way to represent her/his faith to others. Like most Witches, I consider that the five points of the star represent earth, air, fire, water, and spirit (the five elements which we honor and celebrate). If you want to know more, here's a useful history of the pentacle.

3. What exactly do you do in these... rituals?
Here is a fairly standard/ generic ritual outline, to give you an idea of how rituals go. (However, this varies quite a bit from group to group and from ritual to ritual.)

- Cleansing/ purifying the space to set it apart for ritual: This often involves actions like burning incense, sweeping with a broom, or sprinkling salt water.

- Calling on the gods and the four elements: The gods may be called on as individual gods ("I invoke Artemis and Apollo") or as archetypes ("I call on the Lord and Lady of the Hunt"). The four elements - earth, air, fire, and water - are each invoked at one of the four directions.

- Casting the circle to create sacred space: The circle is often created by everyone holding hands together and focusing their intent, or by one person drawing a physical circle with an athame (sacred knife), wand, staff, or their own hand.

- Statement of intention for the ritual, which may be: Working magick toward a goal. Honoring a change in someone's life. Celebrating the cycle of seasons.

- The main body of the ritual, which could involve actions such as: Burning special candles. Raising energy by dancing and singing. Other symbolic actions (e.g. burning paper to represent something to be let go). Performing ritual drama (telling a seasonal story, such as the descent of Persephone to the underworld).

- Feasting: Food and drink - often seasonal - are blessed and shared.

- Saying farewell to the gods and the four elements, and closing the circle.

Some Pagans prefer spontaneous, mostly improvised ritual (often within a loose structure such as the one I just described) while others prefer formal, scripted rituals. Different traditions and paths also usually tend toward one or the other (for example, Gardnerian Wiccans are probably more likely to work with formal, scripted rituals, while Dianic Witches are likely to have more spontaneous rituals).

It is helpful to think about your own preferred ritual style when you are creating your own rituals, using rituals written by someone else, or considering joining a group. The more rituals you participate in, the more you will learn about your own preferences. If you don't have access to different types of ritual, reading about them can also be helpful; for example, try Starhawk's Dreaming the Dark for descriptions of spontaneous, ecstatic rituals, and try Janet and Stewart Farrar's Eight Sabbats for Witches for highly scripted rituals. Most people probably fall somewhere in between these extremes, and prefer different types of rituals for different times and occasions.

4. I'm a teacher/ employer/ social worker and my student/ employee/ client is a Pagan/ Witch/ Wiccan. What do I need to know?
Take a look at: Pagans in the Workplace if you're an employer; You Have A Pagan Student in Your School if you're a teacher. And you can always ask your employee/ student/ client to describe their own beliefs and practices to you, if they feel comfortable doing so, or to give you material that they feel describes their spirituality.

5. Why do people get interested in Paganism and Witchcraft?
If you want to know why a particular person is interested in Paganism, I recommend you ask them. If you're looking for a general idea, I can tell you that people frequently report that they already held Pagan beliefs or practiced Pagan rituals, without having a context for them, and were delighted to find out that such a path existed. These folks usually describe a feeling of "coming home" rather than conversion. Some common reasons why people are drawn to Paganism include, in no particular order: (1) a desire to honor the Earth as sacred; (2) a desire to honor Deity in both feminine and masculine forms; (3) an interest in psychic, paranormal, and magical experiences; (4) a wish to join a non-dogmatic religious path. For a more in-depth answer to this question, I recommend checking out Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, which includes great descriptions of why people got involved with Paganism.

6. How does someone become a Witch?
There are a few paths you can take. One is to study and practice Witchcraft on your own. You can learn from books, from websites, or simply from nature itself. You can keep going on this path for your whole life, or you can begin to practice with others. Many individuals who practice solitary Witchcraft enjoy connecting with other Witches socially, but perform rituals and magick on their own.

You can join a group, or you can form your own. This group may be a long-term, committed coven or a more short-term working group. If you join a group, you can expect to learn the standard beliefs and practices of that group, possibly through some type of initiation process (most covens lead new members through three "degrees" of initiation). If you form your own, your group will most likely work together to form its own norms and practices. The group may work with the guidance of a book (or several books), may rely on the guidance of one or several experienced group members, and/or may encourage members to come up with new ideas for practice.

Finally, you can find a teacher. Some teachers will be affiliated with groups or will teach students in groups, while others will not. For more information on finding a good teacher, the Witches' Voice has guidelines for finding a teacher. You should also check out The Seeker's Bill of Rights. And the Witches' Voice has descriptions of Pagan traditions, written by those who practice them.

7. What books should I read?
I recommend that you take any book you read with a grain of salt, especially as regards Wiccan/Pagan history, and don't be afraid to do your own research if you're skeptical of the claims that are made. There are a lot of crappy books out there, as well as some genuinely good books on current practice with incorrect historical information. You should be skeptical any time you hear vague generalizations like "In the old days, Witches would..." or "In ancient times..." or "An ancient custom on this holiday was..." Including sources is usually a good sign, but doesn't necessarily mean the information is accurate. Watch out for references to books like The Golden Bough by Frazer, The White Goddess by Graves, or The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Murray, all books which greatly influenced modern Witchcraft but are historically inaccurate.

I would avoid any book that claims to be a "Witch's Bible" (or especially THE Witch's Bible), because there is no such thing. To claim to be the Witches' Bible is a great marketing tactic but it is misleading. To my mind, any book that starts out by misleading the reader is suspect.

In terms of magick, I do not believe that spellbooks (i.e. books which consist almost entirely of spells) are particularly useful. These books often appeal to beginners, which is understandable; however, they often fail to teach you how to design your own magickal workings. It is more effective to create a ritual out of your own needs, for your own purposes, using symbols and tools that appeal to you, rather than picking a recipe out of a book.

A few books I would recommend to a beginner are:
- True Magick, by Amber K: A small, friendly, and cheap beginner's guide to magick which includes not only methods of magick, but also things like ethics, and acting in accordance.
- Drawing Down the Moon, by Margot Adler: An excellent historical and sociological description of modern Pagan groups. Good for learning your history and getting a sense of what different groups stand for.
- The Spiral Dance, by Starhawk: Modern feminist Witchcraft, as described by a very gifted writer who is also a political activist.
- Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, by Scott Cunningham: Exactly what it says. This book is great for working and learning on your own; it presents basic Wiccan principles, religious holidays, etc., as well as information about magick.

In addition, for some more advanced reading, take a look at my Pagan Non-Fiction Reading List, which includes books on the practice of magick and Witchcraft, scholarly studies, and mythology and culture. (Alternately, you can try my Pagan Fiction Reading List for interesting and relevant novels.)

Here is an interesting discussion of Critical thinking and Pagan books which addresses the issue of "How do I know what to believe?"

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