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Witchcraft, witches and wizards FAQ

14 September 2019

On Question-and-Answer web sites like Quora I see so many questions about witches, wizards and witchcraft that I think one could classify them as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), and to save a lot of typing I thought I’d write a kind of generic answer here, and simply provide a link to it.

For example, when I opened Quora just now, the first question that popped up was:

What do you call a male witch?

others that I have recently answered are:

Does witch only refer to a woman or can it be used for a man?

“Witch“ can be used for a person of either sex in modern English, though historically there was a distinction, as Jeffery Burton Russell explains in his book A History of Witchcraft, Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans:

What really is a witch? One answer lies in the roots and development of words. ‘Witch’ derives from the Old English wicca (pronounced ‘witcha’ and meaning male witch) and wicce (‘female witch’, pronounced ‘witcheh’) and from the word wiccian, meaning ‘to cast a spell’. Contrary to common belief among modern witches, it is not Celtic in derivation, and it has nothing to do with the Old English witan, ‘to know’, or any other word relating to wisdom. The explanation that witchcraft means ‘craft of the wise’ is false…

‘Wizard’, unlike ‘witch’, really does derive from Middle English wis, ‘wise’. The word first appears about 1440, meaning a ‘wise man or woman’; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it designated a high magician, and only after 1825 was it used as the equivalent of ‘witch’.

Are wizards more powerful than witches? How can you compare them?

And my response to that one is:

What do you mean by “powerful”?

In a given computer game that features witches and wizards, it is up to the programmer to decide which is more powerful, and in what way.

In fiction, it’s up to the author to decide how powerful the characters are, and what their characteristics are.

And in real life there are so many different conceptions of “witches” and “wizards” floating around in different cultures that it is impossible to say.

Some would say that they have no power at all, other than the power that people’s imagination gives to them.

Perhaps those answers between them cover most of the Frequently Asked Questions on the topic of witches and wizards that I have seen on Quora, but there are other things that seem to be missed, either in the questions, or in the answers that have been given.

The thing that is often missed is cultural context.

For many Western people, a significant part of the cultural context is fiction.

In the Harry Potter stories, for example, “wizards” are male and “witches” are female. and in that context they have certain characteristics,. When people familiar with that context encounter the terms “witch” or “wizard” in a different context, they are likely to get confused, hence the kind of questions I’ve referred to above.

J.R.R. Tolkien had wizards in his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but their role was very different from that of wizards in the Harry Potter stories. Other fictional stories feature witches, and their characteristics, roles and powers are whatever the author chooses to give them.

The same applies to computer games. A programmer can have characters called “witches” and “wizards” and “mages” and “warlocks” and can give them powers and characteristics that apply to that game and no other.

Such powers and characteristics, which are constant in one game or novel, are “parameters”. Parameters are values that are constant in the case considered, but may vary in other cases. So in computer game A a witch may have a “power” of 10 and a wizard a “power” of 8, but in game B the “power” parameter could have different values, say 5 for witches and 10 for wizards, The parameters of a witch or wizard in the Harry Potter books differ from those of witches and wizards in Tolkien’s books, and so on.

The same applies in real life.

The parameters of a witch in one culture are different from those of a witch in another culture. When people ask or answer such questions on sites like Quora they are often thinking only of the parameters of witches, wizards, mages and warlocks in their own culture, but the Internet is global, and so the person reading an answer might be thinking of entirely different parameters from those of the person who wrote the answer..

My context is southern Africa, and most of the people I know who think about witches at all fear them as people of malicious intent who are trying to harm them. I know some people who seriously fear that they have been bewitched. In many African pagan cultures the witch is the quintessential symbol of evil, as the devil is in most Christian cultures.

This is sometimes extremely annoying to postmodern neopagans in Europe or North America who like to self-identify as witches, and tend to channel old-fashioned colonial cultural imperialism in insisting that their definition is the only one, which the rest of the world must accept willy-nilly. But perhaps a case can be made for some cultural relativism here, and trying to think beyond one particular culture. So perhaps people reading this could add some cultural variety in the comments.

For more on this topic see:


9 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 September 2019 10:33 am

    I think the situation with the Pagan revival and the rest of the world’s concept of witches is a lot more complex than the brief summary offered here. Intervention in interfaith contexts by people like Don Frew, a well known Pagan from the USA, has resulted in less persecution of indigenous religions, for example.

    Also, European Pagans do read the work of Ronald Hutton and other academic studies of the Pagan revival and the history of witchcraft, Druidry and Paganism, so we are well aware of the complexities of all of this. We also know the etymology of Wicca (well some of us do) and I think you have to compare like with like, i.e. Pagan scholarly people with other scholarly people, not the ill-informed with the informed. There are plenty of Christians who think that “Sam Hain” is a Pagan deity. LOL.

    I agree with you that cultural context is important though.

    • 14 September 2019 1:09 pm

      In what I wrote above I was going mostly by questions and answers I had seen on Quora, where most don’t seem to be aware of how complex it is. So I suppose what I wrote above is an attempt to give a simple answer to a complex question while trying to make clear that it is a complex question.

      • 14 September 2019 5:35 pm

        I meant to say that I like the post and was responding to your request for further amplification 🙂

    • 17 September 2019 12:52 am

      Steve & Yvonne, I might lose the thread of my question in my current deadlines, but my haunting thought is this: Can the word “pagan” do all the things we want it to do? Because I like to joke, someone recently told me they were pagan, so I said “oh, like Thor and Hel!” They didn’t think it was funny, so after I pulled my foot out of my mouth I found out what they meant. Really, they were quite far from Nordic paganism–and certainly different than Indian or North American indigenous or Yoruba spiritualities. I have met people that said they were pagan and wiccan, and some pagans who were anti-wiccan (or distinguished from), some more elemental and some more earthy. One person just said, “Oh, I just like the earth.”
      Is the word stretched beyond its normal elasticity?

      • 17 September 2019 9:56 am

        Many Pagan studies scholars and many Pagans have argued that we should refer to Paganisms. Wicca, Heathenry, Druidry and so on are all distinct religions with their own culture, beliefs, and practices but they share a common ethos and love of the old gods and the Earth.

        It’s like the way that religions within the Chinese cultural sphere can be practiced alongside each other.

        It’s also possible to be an eclectic Pagan who doesn’t practice a specific path.

        In short, the Pagan religious sphere doesn’t fit the model imposed by the modern western view of religions.

        I personally wouldn’t refer to African religions and other indigenous religions as “pagan” because they don’t accept that label and it was imposed by colonialism. Those indigenous and autochthonous religions do share a number of perspectives with Pagan religions. Isaac Bonewits referred to them as PaleoPaganism, and Pagan revival religions as NeoPaganism. I detest the term NeoPagan though.

        Also: referring to our religions without using a capital letter is extremely rude. Please don’t do it.

        When your friend told you they were a Pagan, a better question would have been, “what tradition are you following?”

        Pagan is an umbrella term. If you google for “Pagan umbrella” you can find numerous posts arguing for different metaphors such as the big tent of Paganism (John Beckett), the landscape of Paganism (me), and arguing that the people on the edge of the umbrella are getting wet.

        • 17 September 2019 10:56 am

          In deference to your dislike of “Neopagan” (though not everyone seems to dislike it), I distinguish between Pagan with a capital P and “pagan” with a small “p”.

      • 17 September 2019 10:49 am

        Well it is pretty elastic. If you think in terms of Venn diagrams, “pagan” can include anything that isn’t Christian, even atheism, in some contexts. That’s why I prefer to speak of specific religions or groups of religions.

        The problem is that many of the people who ask questions on Q&A sites like Quora seem to think that “paganism” does refer to a specific religion with clearly definable beliefs and practices that you can “convert” to. I rather like what Robin Lane Fox says about it:

        “Paganism” is a Christian coinage, a term that suggests a
        system of doctrine and an orthodoxy as Christianity knows one.
        But pagan religion was essentially a matter of cult rather
        than creed. No group of pagans ever called themselves “the
        faithful”. There was also no pagan concept of heresy – to
        pagans the term meant a school of thought rather than a false
        and pernicious doctrine. Among pagans, the opposite of
        heterodoxy was not orthodoxy but homodoxy, meaning agreement.

  2. 14 September 2019 5:06 pm

    The television show Bewitched was really good.

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