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Understanding the Word "Witch" and How it is Used Today

Today, the word "witch" has an additional meaning from what the term has always meant. A witch is a healer, a "walker between the worlds," a necromancer, an herbalist, a magickal practitioner, and a variety of other specialties. Witches of today look back into the past and find kindred spirits. Ancestors and strangers who practiced folk magick or worked with the spirits of the land and other practices are recognized as having the same abilities and interests as witches today. However, witches today forget a simple truth: those "witches" would never have used that term to describe themselves. The word "witch" and its equivalent in all languages has always had a dark, negative definition. From a mistake in finding the root of the word, "witch" has been given a makeover.

Where the Trouble Began

Witchcraft in any language has always and will always be associated with things that are baneful, evil, and destructive. Thus, descriptions of witches over the centuries have always been whatever a particular culture believed to be evil and feared the most. Practitioners of what we now call witchcraft seem in every way to be the opposite of that. Why? Because what is now referred to as witchcraft had many other names in the past.

The study of languages is long and tedious, especially to those who do not have a passion for it. Even longer and more tedious is studying the roots of words. Worse, new findings come up over the years that make scholars second guess their original findings. For the average non-scholar, what a book says is the root of a word is all the evidence they need. In the case of Wicca and modern witchcraft, the old words for those who were healers, shamans, magickal practitioners, and even priests were linked to the term "wica" and subsequently "witch."

For example, Wicca got its name from the term "wicce." This word, of course, is the equivalent to "witch." Why would anyone name their religion by a word with such a dark past and evil connotation? Truth be told, at the time many believed that the wicce practiced what is called cunning craft. Cunning men and women served many (usually positive) roles such as midwife, shaman, medicine man, fortune teller, and many others. Today cunning craft is known as Classic Witchcraft because of the confusion of the terms. It turned out that "wicce," which is a root of the word "witch," was not, in fact, a word used for cunning men and women. Instead, it was the same, bad, negative word that "witch" was used for.

Problems in Researching History

Because of the relatively new definition for "witch," modern witches often mistake historical and modern attacks on "witches" as discrimination against witchcraft associated with religious and spiritual paths. Witch hunts and trials have occurred throughout the world in the days of old and in some smaller communities in more modern times. The witches being persecuted? The same evil-doing, diabolical people that the term originally referred to. Of course, such individuals are incredibly rare (we would be fools to believe that absolutely no one has ever set out secretly to cause harm to a community for a perceived wrong). That means that the individuals who were or currently are being tortured, killed, or outcast from societies were innocent of the charges against them.

Because many of the persecuted were cunning men and women, we mistake them as having been witches. By today's definition, we are correct. By theirs? Absolutely not! In some cultures today, the term "witch" is still an insult of the worst kind. In other words, when we look back to the events in history of accused witches being tortured, killed, or outcast, we need to recognize that the individuals were 1) accused of witchcraft in the sense of evil magic and 2) innocent. They may well be kindred spirits, but they would never agree with our choice of term for their practices.

The witch hunts and trials of the past and present were not, are not, and will never be a persecution against modern witches and Pagans. They are in no way an example of prejudice against Pagan faiths and spirituality. They were and are a persecution against evil, wrong-doing, and harm toward the community. Unfortunately, those caught up in the well-meant persecutions are innocent of the charges against them. Fear, confusion, and greed lead to the distortion of facts. What witch hunts, trials, and executions are a wonderful example of, then, is mass hysteria.

What Now?

Languages evolve. "Bad" is now not only a word meaning something that should be avoided, wrong, spoiled, etc. but also an equivalent for the words "cool" and "awesome." Many decades and centuries down the road, someone will look back and have to sort through all of these kinds of shifts in the literal definitions versus the actual usage of such words. Thanks to the confusion of the root word "wicce" and cunning craft, the word "witch" was successfully claimed for modern (and adopted by older) practices and brought a new, positive definition to the word that had never before existed. What does that say about modern witches?

The bottom line in this is that the word "witch" carries two, accurate definitions. One refers to evil-doing, the other to practices such as those of cunning men and women. We have no need to rid the word of one or the other definition. Rather, what we do need to do is recognize the context the word "witch" is being used, whether in researching historical topics or in modern day discussions and events. In the English language (American English most certainly included!), we are no strangers to multiple meanings for the same word. We often have to listen to the context to recognize which meaning is called for in conversation. We must do the same for the word "witch."

© 2012 by Evylyn Rose