I see it all the time on message boards and forums on the internet. “I want to be a Witch — how should I start?” It is pretty bewildering to newcomers because there is so much information out there, so many different “kinds” of Witches that someone who is just getting started can easily become overwhelmed. Here’s some advice from someone who’s been involved as a practitioner for 30+ years now.
Getting Your Bearings: Different Kinds of Witches
There are lots of different types of magickal practitioners out there who all call themselves Witches. The label Witch has been around for a long time and has been applied to, or sometimes claimed by, all sorts of very different people. The one thing in common with all Witches is this: they do magick to help achieve personal goals for others or for themselves, or both.
The stereotypical Witch is someone who does magick with the intent to harm others; Christians would usually say these types are in league with the forces of darkness. These evil types of Witches might be out there (being honest, here!) but they are pretty rare. People who are inclined towards that sort of thing tend to call themselves Satanists, or Luciferians, or Demonolaters, or generally refer to themselves as Left-Handed Path occultists rather than Witches. (And just because someone calls themselves a Satanist, Luciferian, or Demonolater does NOT mean they intend harm to anyone! Even among Left-Handed-Path people those intending harm and actively doing evil are rare.) Some do call themselves Witches, though. And outside the English-speaking world, there are indeed some magickal practitioners who specialize in harmful magick although they generally refer to themselves by terms in their own languages rather than using the English word Witch.
Today the vast majority of Witches are definitely not stereotypical “evil” Witches. Within the English-speaking world there are two basic groups of Witches: Wiccans, and Traditional Witches. There is some overlap between the two groups, and overlap with Witches outside the English-speaking world as well. English “Satanic” Witches generally fall into the “Traditional Witch” category although they are a minority in that group from what I’ve observed over the years.
Wiccan Witches are those who practice a religion based on witchcraft, first promoted by Gerald Gardner in the UK in the late 1940s and 1950s. Gardner’s religion is based on worship of a Goddess and usually (but not always) Her consort, a God. He insisted that Wiccans were not evil — in the 1960s and afterwards this was codified among many Wiccans as “the Wiccan Rede”: An’ it harm none, do what you will. Wicca was originally designed to be a lineage-based secret society religion where initiates could formally trace their connection back to Gerald Gardner. In the 1960s and 1970s self-initiated and self-taught Wiccans started to appear and although initially considered controversial (they weren’t considered “real” Wiccans by lineaged initiates) thanks to the hard work of leading Wiccans such as Raymond Buckland and Doreen Valiente, and the popular books by author Scott Cunningham, self-taught and solitary Wiccan practitioners are not only largely accepted but are now in the majority.
Traditional Witches are those who aren’t Wiccan. They might be followers of other established witchcraft groups such as the Clan of Tubal Cain, or the Cultus Sabbati, or any number of other groups, or might be self-taught and solitary. They might be practicing a form of English witchcraft that is strictly about magick, not a religion at all, or they might be following a religion (Pagan or Christian or Jewish) with magickal practice an inherent part of their faith. Despite calling it “traditional” it’s not really much older than Wicca — both Traditional and Wiccan witchcraft draw from what are basically folk magick practices and material available in printed form such as classical grimoires and books on magick and occultism. Before the 1900s (and really, the 1940s) very few people who practiced any form of folk magick would have described themselves as witches — they would have considered it an insult. The author and both Wiccan and Traditional Witch initiate Michael Howard points out in the preface to his book “Children of Cain: A Study of Modern Traditional Witches” any group or individual who claims their practice has been preserved in an unbroken lineage dating before the 1800s is not being truthful. Despite that, there are lots of excellent books that describe real historical magickal theory and spells that date back thousands of years for Witches of all types to use in their modern practice.
An interesting aside, and a good illustration of the overlap that often happens between different groups: there is a Witchcraft group known as the Feri Tradition, originating with Victor and Cora Anderson in the United States. It predates and was contemporary with Gerald Gardner’s promotion of Wicca, so is sometimes classified as a form of Traditional Witchcraft. However (and perhaps due in part to the influence of Feri initiate Gwydion Pendderwen/ Thomas deLong) they adopted a lot of Wiccan material to the point that today the system is sometimes called Feri Wicca and is classified by some as a Wiccan form of Witchcraft. Famous Feri initiates include the popular author Starhawk, whose 1979 book “The Spiral Dance” was hugely influential in the popularization of Witchcraft particularly in the United States and Canada.
Other English Witchcraft “Types”
Over the decades there has been an explosion of books being published by and for English-speaking Witches. The 1980s and 1990s in particular saw a huge number of new books coming out: Scott Cunningham’s “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner” came out in 1988 and is still in print and very popular today. And to help new books stand out from the crowd of others being sold, authors and publishers turned to new niches within Witchcraft, basically inventing new “types” to promote. In quick succession we saw the introduction of Green Witchcraft, Hedge Witchcraft, and Cottage Witchcraft. Kitchen Witches started to appear. Goth Witches, Draconic Witches, and more, were announced. Some focussed on specific cultural systems: Celtic Witches, Norse Witches, Greek Witches, Egyptian Witches (all speaking English, of course). While the majority of Witches were Pagans, we also had Christian Witches and Jewish Witches step into the limelight. In recent years there have also been a few English language books on Muslim Witchcraft and middle-eastern Pagan forms of Witchcraft.
Even more recently, particularly on social media sites such as Tumblr, we’ve had the blossoming of everything-under-the-sun-(and-moon) “types” of Witchcraft being declared: Crystal Witches, Fire Witches, Sea Witches, Cosmic Witches, West Witches, Cat Witches (really!), Cosmetic Witches, and many more. Personally I think it’s a bit silly and to be honest just confuses newcomers. You don’t need to pick a speciality at all (like a particular element, or working with crystals, or whatever), least of all at the start of your study of Witchcraft. If you do pick a speciality at some point because it calls to you and it makes sense to you, by all means do so. And you don’t need to apply some new label to yourself once you have a speciality — it’s definitely not required. Most specialists just call themselves a Witch.
Choosing a Label
In the end you can choose whatever label you prefer for yourself, based on where your studies of Witchcraft are leading you. The easiest label, of course, is just Witch. If you find yourself most drawn to Gerald Gardner’s system and the systems based on it, then it makes sense to call yourself a Wiccan. If you are not interested in Wicca but are definitely a Witch, then perhaps you are a Traditional Witch.
There are some labels or titles that you must earn in order to be able to use them. For instance, to call yourself a High Priest or High Priestess, you must be a leader of an actual functioning group. There are also many different groups, or denominations, of both Wiccan and Traditional Witchcraft which require members to undergo a formal initiation in order to be considered a member. If you want to be a Gardnerian Wiccan, for instance, you need to be formally initiated into an existing Gardnerian Wiccan coven. Just like to be considered a Roman Catholic priest there is a formal process of training and initiation performed with Vatican approval. However, to become a Wiccan, or a Traditional Witch, independent of existing covens, groups, and denominations, you are in good company (with thousands if not millions of others around the Earth in fact!) who are self-taught or self-initiated.
So, What Do I Need to Be A Witch?
Some key things you need to be a Witch, and to be successful as a Witch:
- An open mind (but not so wide open your brains fall out!)
- Courage to try
- Determination to keep trying if things don’t work the first time (it’s not always easy)
- Self-discipline (you need to work to build new skills)
- Independence (even in formal groups there is a lot of personal study you will be doing)
- An openness to your artistic side (even if you’ve never considered yourself to be an artist before)
Witchcraft overall is not an organized structure like the Roman Catholic Church; there is no Witch Council or Witch Pope or Grand High Witch or Supreme (thanks, American Horror Story for introducing that new title!) who rules over all. Individual groups often have their own leaders, and some groups are like Christian denominations in that they have a collection of covens or groups that are part of their larger group, with some sort of council or leader set up at the top. Anyone who tells you that a particular rule (like the Wiccan Rede, for instance) applies to all Witches is not being truthful. (Even within Wicca, while the Wiccan Rede is definitely popular and common, it is not universal among all Wiccans.) You can be a Witch regardless of whatever rules other Witches might or might not be following, or ways they might or might not do things. You can explore the vast subject of magick and witchcraft, find or devise your own preferred way of doing things, and you are as much a Witch as any other.