“The obiya is a forest power. It is also a sorcerous gift and somehow different from genuine ‘witchcraft’ that is focused on transmission through blood, while obiya is transmitted by through breath and spirit. Hence you can find the ‘witch-blood’ in vessels void of understanding its own blood, as you are born with it, but it is not like this with a sorcerous transmission as you have to receive it. There is great truth in a saying like “A witch is born, a sorcerer is made” and because of this a sorcerer can strictly speaking be ‘unmade’, while a witch cannot really be ‘unborn’ as such.” - Nicolaj de Mattos Frisvold
I've seen a few conversations online lately about more clearly defining what is and what isn't a witch. People seem to finally be done with the silly idea that we can't define a word and that anyone who wants to call themselves a witch can be one. Clearly that's not how words work.
Unfortunately, no one is defining it the way Nicolaj Frisvold is, despite his being the accurate view historically. People are comfortable with the Neo-Pagan point of view popularized in books from the 60's up through today. But we know a lot more about magic now, and we know a lot of what came from the occult revival, and from Gardner, and from the growth of NeoPaganism is incomplete. We know we need to move away from a lot of the practices and ideas popularized in those movements. There's good stuff there that we need to keep, but we need to critically review what's there and let go of what's not tenable. Like the idea that witch is about some sort of feminine empowerment, or worshiping the god and goddess of nature, or drum circles.
People claim we can't look at historical evidence about witches because Inquisitors were mysogynists and medieval people believed things we take as nonsensical. But the wrongheadedness of some people who used the word witch doesn't mean witch had no meaning until we assigned it a new one. People say we can't take historical meanings of the word witch because witches were supernatural monsters, I say you can't be a witch if you're not a supernatural monster. If we don't want what the word meant, worts and all why would you want the word at all? There are so many other things we as modern magicians can call ourselves other than witches, words which are more accurate, so why do we need the word witch?
Witchcraft is only a part of what I do. It's not the main thing I spend my time on. But it's been part of it since the beginning. I accept the word, as one of several that describe me, because when my mom was four years old, she was routinely locked in a closet by a woman who was punishing her for being born a witch. And while she wasn't happy when my dad tried to introduce magic to their relationship early on, because she rejects her magic, both of my parents shared things that helped me develop magically as a child. I dismiss the popular view that says that people want to claim to be born witches because they want to be special. My mom didn't want to be born a witch and doesn't want to be a witch. I personally think my upbringing doesn't make a great “old gramma tale” and is pretty boring, in fact I grew up assuming everyone was taught the same stuff as a kid. Most of my magic comes from hard work and study. And my sister readily admits that she didn't do anything with familial witchcraft, which is a good example of how being born with something doesn't matter if you don't do anything with it. It's like being born left handed, or with natural musical talent, it's one of many traits, that may or may not result in something.
When I got into magic, a lot of the serious, knowledgeable, successful magicians I know were from families that held a belief in witch blood. None of them were people who needed to claim witch blood to legitimize themselves. They were all pretty awesome without it. Most of them only talked about it in private. In fact, that's part of why I'm making this post. Well, for one, yesterday was Halloween. For two, I was having a conversation with a friend and my view on traditional witchcraft came up. I ended up getting a lot more detailed into my point of view and into my own experiences, and those of my friends, than I normally would. I still don't intend to get to detailed about myself or my family or my friends here. But I do want to present in detail my view of what a witch is.
Historically, there are a couple ways to become a witch. There are the fully supernatural varieties, like Circe, where they are semi-divine figures. There are also the fully supernatural ones that we often see in tribal stories where the witch is something of an evil sorcerer but is often described almost as if it is some sort of malevolent fairy or spirit creature. We also see historically ones that are a little more tenable. Witches are often born as witches. Either through some circumstance of the timing of their birth, or coincidental occurrences that make them a witch, or based on some familial element such as birth numbering or simply being born into a family of witches. This idea of being born a witch plays out in folklore with witches being born with unusual or particular physical features.
We also have stories of people encountering a faery or spirit and that faery or spirit offering to serve as a familiar spirit as part of some deal. The spirit performs magic for the witch and teaches them witchcraft. In modern pop culture we see this playing out in The VWitch with Black Phillip.
In stories of conspiratorial witchcraft, or witchcraft involving covens we see a different sort of pact. Witches meet the black man in the forest, who incidentally is very similar to spirits described in some forms of sorcery. Der Teufel is cast as Satan in the witch trial transcripts, but we can find non-Satanic antecedent figures who fit this shadowy spirit who teaches magic, grants power, and binds familiars in various magical and religious systems.
In history though, the witch is a witch because of birth or because of a spirit contract. Not because they just decide they're a witch, or because they dance under the full moon and love the earth.
What do witches do? Well, in Thessaly, they mostly did black magic and necromancy. Again, there seems to be some overlap between the Witch and the sorcerer, but they're also not precisely the same. The witches trace back to figures like Circe and Medea, the semi-divine witches of the silver age and so they seem to avoid some of the problems associated with necromancers, while still being characters treated pretty unsympathetically.
In more positive Mediterranean depictions, and in later folklore and in trial confessions witches seem to also do stuff that looks like folk magic and pretty standard sorcery. They don't sing about reincarnation at drum circles, and reclaim their person-hood with pearl pentacle rituals. Sometimes they do things for the good of the people in the community, sometimes they do things for themselves, sometimes those things are pretty neutral or positive looking, sometimes they're pretty awful looking, like Isobel Gowdie and her friends killing all the children of an unjust land owner. In general it looks like witches in history did what they needed to do, or what they wanted to do without considering anything other than their own view on what they should and shouldn't do.
I think this to me gets to one of the most important parts of the witch. This is one that we see in the character of the witch in stories, and fairy tales, and in my own experience what I've seen of real witches. The witch is more than anything else an example of Otherness. The Other represents an individual or idea that stands outside the cultural norm and is potentially disruptive to that norm. The Other is by its nature transgressive and when approached correctly there is power in that transgressive nature. Alternatively the witch could be described as Queer. In cultural and queer studies otherness is often associated with homosexual figures. In our concept Queer doesn't necessarily mean homosexual, but more so “blurry” or something which is between various potentialities and is able to move between them and inhabit them as they choose to. This ability to choose, to navigate, to inhabit more than one space at once is a key to the witch's power.
This Otherness addresses also the difference in modality between a witch's magic and other systems of magic. Based on what we've touched on so far, witchcraft involves sorcery and folk magic, necromancy, work with fairies and nature spirits, and magic taught to the witch by spirits. There is also an intuitive element. This is actually how I got to discussing witchcraft with my friend the other day, as the place of intuition in learning magic came up. I think it has a higher place in witchcraft than in other systems, where magic is more learned and studied. A witch, by virtue of being a liminal creature by nature can explore the spaces between potentialities within his or her own liminal state, and this gives a certain access to magical awareness, and is likely why being born a witch historically is associated with being born with the Sight. A witch also works magic through connecting with the natural world, not to worship or honor it, but to move and manipulate it through that connection. Similarly bewitching animals and people is based on this connection and internal multiplicity.
The word witch does not come from a word meaning “wise one” but rather a word meaning “to bend.” A witch is a bender. This multiplicity and the ability to self select ones state of being is the operant element of witchcraft outside of what it shares with other systems of magic. The witch joins him or herself to the object they wish to bewitch or shape, and the witch changes so that the thing being spelled also changes. This isn't, in my experience, how most systems of magic work. When I was about 4, and then again at 6, the first couple pieces of magic my father taught me were based on this. He didn't describe it in this way, he simply explained how to lock someone into you (create a connection) by looking at them, and then how to control them based on how you felt inside (bend and bewitch). As a boy I didn't think of this as “magic” or “witchcraft” or anything other than just stuff dad's teach their kids. But as I hit my twenties and began to refine my idea of witchcraft from talking with familial witches, and then studying under one, it became evident that the difference between witchcraft and other systems I was learning was that a witch engaged in activities to, as my teacher called it, “become a good animal” or return to a state of being connected with the natural world, so that they could shape themselves in a way which would result in changes in the world around them.
So in short, in my mind, if you're a witch, you're born a witch. Either because you had witches in your family, or because of some special thing that happens with your birth. This idea isn't even foreign to Neo-Paganism, Gardner had to prove witch blood to join the coven he was in before he started Wica. Sybil Leek's coven worked the same way. The handful of pre-Wica covens out there seemed to include proving a witch ancestor as a standard. If you're not born a witch but wish to be one, you might also become a witch by making a deal with a fairy, tossing a toad skeleton in the river, or going to a tree at a crossroads in the night and making a deal with the Black Man who encounters you there. The last of these seems to be the easiest and most common. Once you become a witch, you consort of the dead, maintain business relationships with underworld gods, talk to nature spirits, fairies, and potentially other sorts of demons on the regular, and do folk magic and sorcery. Most importantly, you become something which isn't what everyone else is, something liminal and queer, and you use that transgression not to empower yourself, but to have power over other things around you.