andred/herne symbol - pentacle on hexagram gods' names in runes
Witchcraft may be many things but it certainly is not old women with pointy hats, riding brooms and cursing people. Instead witchcraft is more a case of learning and mastering basic skills and the ability, or willingness, to put them into practice. It is, however, easy to see where the old and biased views of witchcraft come from. When the Christian faith supplanted the native pagan faiths the Church became the sole administrator to the publics  spiritual needs and jealously guarded its position of power. Despite the presence of female orders the Church was, and still is, male dominated and as such felt threatened by the position held by the local wise woman. So as well as demonising the old religions, describing witches as ugly old women and witchcraft as evil was a convenient way of maintaining the Churches position of power. Of course it would not be fair to blame it all on the jealousy of the Church; there would have been common people with issues against the local witch who would have willingly perpetuated such sentiments.

So witches were demonised because they were independent and likely willing to speak out against the dictates of the Church; but why the pointed hats and broomsticks? Well some say that the pointed hat was symbolic of a cone of power, but that strikes more as a modern interpretation, rather it is more likely that the witches simply wore clothes that were not uncommon to the local community, pointed hats having been fashionable with both men and women in the past, and you need look no further than Welsh national dress to see an outfit not too dissimilar from the traditional image of a witch. Of course in contemporary accounts and woodcuts witches are often shown as wearing current fashions, and I have yet to read a credible account of witch hunterís persecuting someone solely for their wardrobe.

As for the besom or broomstick, well apart from the obvious use for keeping a clean house there are two current theories commonly heard. The first is that the broom was used in a fertility ritual held in the spring to encourage the growth of crops. Simply put, the witch would stand with the broom between their legs and leap about as high as they can to encourage the crops to grow tall and strong. This makes reasonable sense to me, and indeed is as close to flying as 'yogic flying' is today. The other theory comes along with the use of a 'flying ointment'. Flying ointments were allegedly used by the witch to enter a state of altered consciousness in much the same way as a shaman might use certain plants to achieve a similar state. Once in this altered state the witch might experience a sensation of flight, perhaps even a form of astral projection.  Would it be stretching credibility to equate the witches of old with the role of a shaman? I believe it is a reasonable comparison, as in many ways the tribal shaman and the village witch may well have fulfilled

similar roles within their own communities. Hang on, whatís this got to do with the broomstick? Well there is this theory that rather than simply rub the ointment in place, it was instead smeared on to the broomstick and the stick itself used to apply the substance to the inner lining of the witchís vagina. Some brooms apparently concealed a carved phallus within the bristles for ease of use. Now while this does give a new meaning to 'riding the broomstick' and would also take into account both possible orientations of the broom as well as the use of other modes of transport, for example yarrow sticks or pitchforks, it does make me wonder exactly how the male witch would implement this; Harry Potter could be in for a big surprise!

So if the commonly held stereotypes are not true, what then is witchcraft?

Some people describe witchcraft as 'the craft of the wise' and despite arguments over the origination of the term, it is a reasonable description as by mastering only some of the many skills required to be a witch would certainly give you some degree of wisdom. Witchcraft is in fact many things: a composite of knowledge and many skills.

Some Components of Traditional Witchcraft
  • Animal Husbandry
  • Animal lore
  • Chemistry
  • ESP - possibly more a gift than a skill, but certainly one beneficial to any potential witch
  • Healing - of both animals and humans
  • Herb lore - both in cultivation and use
  • Local history
  • Magic - true magic as outlined elsewhere on this site
  • Midwifery
  • Mortality - people die, so do animals: one to be buried one to be butchered
  • Psychology
  • Weather lore
  • Woodcraft - not everything is found in the garden

Of course there are no hard and fast rules and others may feel that there are other subjects that should be included.
  • Witch as healer-Before the coming of doctors and vets the local healer would have been called on to attend the sick and the dying. In addition it would have been down to the healer to attend to the birthing of both animals and humans, and in the case of humans also to the non-birthing should circumstances dictate. The healer would have had to rely upon knowledge of plants and basic chemistry to create their own healing treatments. Of course some illnesses would have required an understanding of human nature.
  • Witch as arbiter-The local wise person would have been the person that everyone approached to resolve conflicts and settle disputes. By calling upon knowledge of local history and an understanding of human nature such matters could be resolved. In addition people may seek simple advice about life choices or maybe even psychological problems; understanding body language, psychology and perhaps neuro linguistic programming, and life experience would have enabled assistance could be offered. Of course some may dispute the decision made, and as such enforcing it may have been down to a reputation in other areas.
  • Witch as magician-Think witch and you think of magic, true enough, but sometimes magic is less a case of channeling energies and more a case of taking action.  Sometimes the strongest 'magic' available is to actually do something, whether the action is physical or psychological the result can be just as strong. Sometimes just making the decision is enough. Of course a willingness to take action combined with a record of doing things is enough to build a useful reputation in this area.
  • Witch as mortician-Everything dies; humans and animals both. With animals it is a case of butchery or burial, while with humans it is a case of burial and counseling.

Of course much of the above is less relevant in todayís society, but the basics of witchcraft remain despite the rise of specialised sciences and services.

So what makes a witch?

Basically a witch is someone who practices witchcraft. That's it, short and sweet; you can't be a witch if you don't practice witchcraft and if you practice witchcraft, you are a witch! However there a couple of exceptions: firstly though someone practices the craft, and might therefore be a witch by default, it does not follow that they would accept that description. Secondly some followers of the Wiccan religion describe themselves as witches and, even though they may not practice the craft in the same manner as a traditional witch, they are as entitled to be called by that honorific.

As such it is always better to ask someone if they are a witch, rather than assume that they are.

Of course practicing the craft is one thing, but to truly be a witch you need to know when to use it and when not to. Knowing when it is best to let things develop on their own and when to intercede is not an easy thing. Furthermore knowing what is the best way to take action and how far to go is no easier. Witchcraft: The craft of the wise, indeed.

Witchcraft is not as such a religion, as can be seen from the above it is simply a collection of skills developed over time and used by a person who is willing to act when necessary and wise enough to let things be when that is the best solution. Therefore a witch could be of any faith or even an atheist. There are those though that regard the craft as their religion, and as such that is their right, but in effect they are probably integrating their faith, whether it is a Pagan or other path, into their practice of the craft to such an extent that the one flows seamlessly into the other.

Those that do regard their practice as a witch as being their religion are likely to follow the seasons in a similar way to those who practice Wicca, however they may not recognise the same 'Wheel of the Year' nor may they hold the same meanings to the festivals they do recognise. Many will follow rituals and values handed down, either directly within their family/community, though others may form their own systems based on their research and experience. It might seem strange in this day and age to give credence to the existence of family lines in the practice of the craft, especially as so many who claim this are proved to be false, however the fact that other family traditions, superstitions and vocations have survived over the centuries does at least suggest that the practice of witchcraft may have continued too.

Do witches have a god? Some do, some donít, it really depends on whether they follow a religion, or indeed equate their craft with religion. You often hear of witches worshipping the Devil or of a Horned God of the witches, well many of the old gods had horns, Pan, Herne and sometimes Frey for examples, and indeed the Church used the image of these older gods to give a recognisable face to their Devil, but this does not mean that they are one and the same or that witches are doing 'Satanís work'.

There are a number of differences between the working of a traditional witch and a Wiccan. A Wiccan for example tends to use specific tools that are set aside for ritual whereas a traditional witch would more likely use only the tools that they had to hand. Of course in modern times there is a cross over in practice; traditional witches may use a dedicated athame where once they would have used a kitchen knife and some Wiccans may forego the use of special equipment as a way to connect with the witches of old. One thing though that must be born in mind is that while some witches may be Wiccan many are not and would not  look favourably at being classed as such.

One thing that must be made clear though is that while some may claim that witches have to be born and others that a witch can be made, no matter what the route to being a witch it is not something that happens overnight. While book learning may be enough to start the process, the ability to question what is offered and the knowledge gained by experience are the two things that will facilitate the transformation.
link to Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle
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