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What Is Witchcraft?

Religion - from the Latin religio - (reverence for the gods)
A system of religious belief, often involving a code of ethics and philosophy. Any system of beliefs, practices, and ethical values.

There is no universal meaning for what Witchcraft is. It means different things in different cultures. But here I will try to give as detailed a description as possible, with providing as many views as possible. You may also want to look at the Additional Reading list that expands on some of the information here.
First let's make it clear that Witchcraft is the title of the religion. Not Wicca. Here in the U.S. there is a large debate about this. But if one is open to the historic evolution of the religion; Wicca is a moderately new tradition within the religion and not the religion itself. You can read much more about this in the Is Witchcraft A Religion article.By Eric Tewder, 1996
So what is Witchcraft?
Witchcraft is a spiritual practice, a way of life, a belief system and a religion. Witchcraft is the religion that sets the foundation of belief. The denominations of Witchcraft are called Traditions. They further define and implement the foundation of beliefs into their own perspectives of practice. Defining their own creed, troth or rede of faith to provide guidance and principles for that tradition.
"The Craft" is a much older way to describe what is commonly known as Witchcraft. But some suggest "The Craft" is actually the craft of Magik, or magikal practices which are not specific to, or only used by, pagan religions.
Some refer to their spiritual belief system by the name of their particular tradition (ie: Wicca). We will discuss this further below.
There is no single Bible or sacred text defining all of Witchcraft, in all its many sects or traditions. However each practioner and/or coven has their own Book of Shadows or Grimoire. The Grimoire contains rituals, invocations and charms, experiences and journal entries from the coven as a whole. They contain information and teachings learned from experiences and from each other. Practioners often copy from each others books, and more often students from their teachers. Often a teacher will define exactly which entries a student must copy into their own Grimoire before their initiation process into that coven can be completed.
Even though a coven has a base or official source of Grimoire, no two Grimoires are ever exactly the same. Ideally a Grimoire should contain only methods that have proven successful and have been consistent in their workings or hold up to scrutiny. Failed ideas are excluded. Along with the Grimoire, many covens see other essential texts to the Grimoire: The Greater Key of Solomon the King which dates from medieval times and The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage which was published in the late 1900s. These two books are said to contain the basic lessons and principles of magik that should be utilized in every coven. Of course this is not a requirement and not all covens provide these additional works.
Witchcraft is a recognized religion by the United States government. In 1985/86 the U.S. Army included a section in the Army Chaplin's Handbook on Witchcraft/Wicca. If you examine the entry, you will notice that the religion is known by other names, and you'll find Witchcraft listed in that section of the document.
In the most simplistic definitions, Witchcraft can be described as:
A nature based religion that believes in the balance of mind/body/spirit within the divine multiverse. It is a religion and way of life, honoring all things seen and unseen within that divine multiverse. Practitioners strive to live in harmony and balance within nature, believing we (human and nature) are all interconnected and parts of the greater divine force. Some call this force, The GreatSpirits, The Divine, God/Goddess, All That Is and so on. It's really up to the individual and what label best fits their view of the Divine Spirit.
Witchcraft comes in many forms or sects. As mentioned earlier, these sects are called Traditions. Many are based not on book or historical record, but rather oral tradition. Perhaps that's where the label 'tradition' comes from. There are many Traditions within the category of the religion. One of the more commonly known today is Wicca which has become one of the most popular traditions in America.
Think of it this way:
The tradition is to Witchcraft what a denomination is to Christianity.
That is to say: Wicca is to Witchcraft what Baptist is to Christianity.
You can refer to the Witchcraft Traditions article for additional information.
Practitioners of Witchcraft believe in a balanced polarity, especially that of the feminine and masculine energy of the Divine universe. These two aspects of nature are embodied in two deities, known as the Goddess and God. Traditionally most Pagan deities are considered to represent the different aspects of the God/Goddess.
Most traditions honor the God/Goddess as equals where one does not acquire more or less importance over the other. This translates into a balance between the feminine and masculine forces within the divine. Which God/Goddess a tradition honors depends on their cultural heritage. Celts honor Celtic Gods, Egyptian traditions honor Egyptian Gods and so on. These cultural groups of God/Goddess are called Pantheons. A few branches, such as Dianic, view the feminine aspect with more importance.
There are many groups who are monotheists (there is only 1 god), polytheists (there are many gods) or duotheists (1 female and 1 male god). Many regard the gods as real, not simply as aspects of a male or female deity. Where other Traditions see them as pantheons, just aspects of the Divine force in the universe. Today there is a belief that a tradition of Witchcraft must be polytheists or duotheists to be legit. That is a total misconception. Many early pagans were monotheists, who saw the Divine Spirit as once force that lives within all things and connects all things into one force in nature.
For those that honor both the God and Goddess, the Goddess is the existing force of all creation as in the Earth, nature and life itself. The Goddess has three faces: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. These faces correspond to the many different cycles in nature: the waxing, full and waning phases of the moon; the menstrual cycle and the cycle of life in birth, life and death.
The God is less commonly defined across Traditions. He can be a single view, such as Odin in Norse practices, The Horned God Cernunnos in Celtic traditions, Ra in Egyptian traditions and so on. In many sects, the God comes in two forms, the young God who starts the year and works into the Summer when he becomes the Old God into Yule when he has aged and grown old. At this time he faces the young God who will begin the new year cycle again. There are variations to this theme, The Holly and Oak Kings, The Horned God, The Sacred King are all examples of this.
Practioners of Witchcraft hold a belief in Reincarnation and do not believe in heaven or hell since death is considered to be another form of existence. Some practioners believe that a soul is continually reborn whereas others believe that once a soul learns all the life lessons, it is granted eternal rest in a place called the Summerlands, which is also known as Valhalla for the Norse, The Otherworld for the Celts, Avalon for the Anglo-Saxons and so on throughout each cultural Tradition.
Practioners believe in Karma as the result of an action brought through life time to lifetime. It is the ultimate divine law that governs the use of magik and behavior since it deals with the divine cosmic justice. In other words a person is reborn in a position that befits their deeds from the previous life. In addition, the deeds created in this incarnation create the life experiences upon ones path through this life.
Practioners believe in Energy and Psychic abilities. Believing that we are all energy beings and connected through energy. That through this energy we can connect to each other and all things with our psychic senses and that these senses are part of all nature and that all people have these senses within them.
Practioners believe in Spirits, Spirit Guides and Ghosts. Believing that a soul never dies and has the ability to walk in all spiritual realms. That they share knowledge and information, guide and assist the living through their spiritual path.
While most practioners believe in Magik, not all feel the need to practice it's craft.
Practioners honor the energy and flow of the Moon as it relates to daily life. The phases of the moon are honored and celebrated through rituals known as Esbats. Additionally we mark specific cycles of nature and the changes of the year through holidays we call Sabbats. These cycles are celebrated though rituals and ceremonies, most often in Magikal Circles or Sacred Spaces.
Practioners gather in groups called Covens or Clans or alone in Solitary practice. Each group may have it's own unique practices or rituals. Covens range in number of members, but traditionally have a maximum of thirteen which is the number of transition. When the number of members in a coven exceeds thirteen, the common belief is that the coven should split, to continue the self-perpetuation process.
Practioners do not have specific structures of worship, though some find the means and finances for constructing indoor altars, some call them temples, while others practice their rituals at outdoor altars. In reality, any place in contact with the Earth will suffice. Rituals are practiced in Circles representing the cycle of life, energy and the ever ending cycle of divine energy. Group Circle Gatherings are similar to Setting Circles for solitary practices. The area is purified by the four elements and then the Circle is cast , usually by a leader of the coven often known as a Priest or Priestess who walks clockwise along its perimeter and drawing an actual circle. Sometimes with a wand or athame which are two common tools, a rope made of natural fibers, a vine or drawing in the dirt. After this, many Covens call forth the four cardinal directions and are greeted and invoked, according to the tradition and preference of the practitioners.
Other neo pagans practice entirely without formal circle-casting. Some Celtic reconstructionists worship in a Nemeton, as they believe the ancients did, within a ritual framework based on elements earth, wind, fire, water. Others have adapted Native American practices and invoke the directions, including Above and Below. And some, meld all these aspects together and work with the directions and the elements.
Practioners conduct sacred rites within the Circle, invoking the names of the Goddess and God along with the essences of nature. Once the Circle has been cast, the space within represents an altered consciousness that is "between worlds." The Circle also serves to contain energy that is built up during the rites until it is ready to be released in what is known as the Cone of Power. When the Cone of Power is released, the energy goes into the purposes that the practitioners have set forth in their ritual.
Rituals often also include an honoring of the God/Goddess with wine and cakes. A goblet of wine is raised and an Athame is dipped into it to represent the union between the Goddess (the goblet) and the God (the athame). The cup is then passed around the Circle to be drunk by the practitioners. The ceremonial cakes are then passed around as well, to complete the socializing and fellowship that is present in the circle. Sometimes rituals are also conducted skyclad (naked) or in special costumes, depending on the tradition. The purpose of both these practices is to increase the unity with nature.
Practioners have a set of tools commonly used for casting circles and during rituals.
  • The broom, serves the purpose of purifying a space before casting a circle.
  • An altar where the rite is focused.
  • The wand and athame which are masculine tools.
  • The cup and broom which are feminine tools.
These objects also represent the elements, fire, earth, water and air. In some traditions, the wand is the symbol for air and the athame a symbol for fire. The practioner (if a solitary) or the priest/priestess stands in the center of the circle to represent the 5th element, the divine spirit. This combination of elements and nature perfectly complement the image of the Goddess and God during the ritual.
Some Wiccans have alternate associations with elements and directions, especially those based on Norse or Welsh covens. The Athame in some groups is a white-handled knife used in ritual, the black handled athame might be used outside the circle for magically related work such as gathering herbs or cutting candle wicks. Another tool used for these purposes is the boline, a crescent shaped knife.
There are three types of gatherings: Sabbats, Esbats and special purposes. In a special purpose gatherings, a coven meets to deal with a common goal or issue that needs immediate attention, such as casting a health spell to aid a sickly friend. Most magikal rites are performed at Esbats, which are small gatherings that correspond to the phases of the moon.
Sabbats or Holiday festivals also take place during the year. These holidays are divided into the sections of the seasonal year, spring, summer, fall and winter. They are also divided into
Quarters and Cross-quarter ceremonies.
 Quarter ceremonies,
these are also called the Fire Festivals.
Midsummer - Summer Solstice
Cross Quarter ceremonies.
While many traditions use Initiations to acknowledge the progress of a practioner through knowledge and learning, not all traditions follow this concept. Initiates are considered to be priests/priestess after a full cycle of learning is acquired. Often, a Priest/Priestess takes on the role similar to other clergy, performing blessings, weddings, eulogies and so on. Many practioners are fighting to gain state recognition for their status as clergy within the pagan community.
What Witchcraft and A Tradition Are Not!
Kitchen Witch
This label pops up every now and then. More closely related to the Hereditary sect, these witches are practicing healing and ceremonies based on family tradition. "Old wives tales", Grandma's healing concoctions and special family traditions all make up this sect of the craft.. However, since these beliefs are often handed down from generation to generation, the label Heredity is more appropriate. But there is a nice warm feeling about calling your grandma a "kitchen witch" and referring to her old remedies that helped you feel better when you got a bad cold.
A mis-labeled sect, based in South Central Pennsylvania. It is based on a 400 year old German magik system and has deteriorated into a a simple faith healing. The mis-use of the term maybe offensive to the original practioners of a true Pow-Wow, the Native American nations. It is advised that this term remain connected to the originators and not to this adopted society. Even at 400 years old, the Pennsylvania/German system is new in comparison to the Native American beliefs. See "Similarities in Beliefs" for a further discussion of this topic.
Devil Worship
An important NOT!
Craft practioners do not worship "the devil", because pagan Witches do not belief in the devil. The misconception was mainly created by the Christian Church as a means to destroy Craft beliefs which were often perceived to be at odds with what the "Church" wanted spread across the world. Many detractors of the Christian faith often site this type of propaganda as an example of the "Churches'" attempt to gain control over the people.
An other important NOT!
Craft practioners are not Satanists. Satanism is also a pre-Christian pagan religion, however there are significant differences between these two faiths. Many people often confuse Satan with the Christian devil. Again, this is due to Christian propaganda. Satan is the translated name of the Egyptian God Set, who was the deity of ego and confidence. These traits when taken to extremes are similar to Lucifer and thus the association stuck. Satanists however, do not believe in the existence of the devil, and do not worship that being. They see themselves as the God force and practice a faith of eye for an eye. If you'd like to learn more, I strongly suggest you visit the University Of Virginia's Religious Freedoms site and review their study on Satanism.
Additional Reading
 What Is Witchcraft?   
 Is Witchcraft A Religion?
 The Creation of Modern Witchcraft
 An Evolution of WitchCraft (Timeline)
 Which Witch is Which? - Labels & Titles

Source: 1, c3, c4, c8, c13, s1, s2, s4, s5, s6, s7, s11, s14, m1, m4, m5, m7, m10, m16, m18, m23, m36
Created: 10.02.1996         Updated: 01.20.2009