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Witchcraft today

Contemporary Witchcraft is a Pagan mystery religion rooted in European shamanic practices and traditional healing arts.  It is a  nature-centered religion which honors a Goddess and a God, using magic as a tool of personal and global transformation.  It is characterized by a deep respect for all living things, acceptance of personal and social responsibility, attunement to natural rhythms, healing, achieving balance between all aspects of the self and society, a sense of play and wonder, and the celebration of sensuality.  It is a positive, life-affirming spirituality.


Wicca, the most common form of modern Witchcraft, emerged in the 1950s after the last British laws against Witchcraft were repealed when Gerald Gardner published several books describing the Craft traditions into which he had been initiated.  Gardner, with the help of Doreen Valiente, developed the tradition which bears his name, combining elements from his own coven’s work with Rosicrucianism, mythology, Masonry, folklore, and many other sources.  Variations on Gardnerian Wicca developed almost immediately, especially in the US as practitioners created systems which met their particular needs.  There are now roughly ten “major” traditions in the US with thousands of variations.

    It is believed that the word “witch” comes from the Germanic root “wic,” meaning “to turn” or “to bend.”  The use of the terms Witch and Witchcraft are controversial among practitioners as some feel they carry so many negative connotations that they cause more trouble than they’re worth.  These Wiccans prefer the terms “priest” or “priestess.”  Others feel these words should be reclaimed as terms for people with spiritual power.  Many Witches consider the healers, midwives, and village wisewomen or cunningmen of the past to be their predecessors.  Some of these may refer to themselves as Kitchen Witches or Hedge Witches rather than Wiccan.

    Federal and state courts recognize Witchcraft and other forms of Paganism as religions entitled to First Amendment protections.  Wicca has been included in the US Army chaplain’s manual since the 1970s. 

A Witch’s worldview

Generalizations are difficult to make when describing Witchcraft or other Pagan religions, since there is no doctrine and individuals are encouraged to find their own path.  However, most Witches adhere to similar general principles, some of which are described here.

    The single most important element that almost all Witches share in common is their adherence to the Wiccan Rede: “If it harms none, do what you will.”  This maxim encourages personal freedom within the context of community.  Many Witches also believe in the Law of Threes or the Law of Return which states that every energy the Witch sends forth returns to him/her threefold.  Therefore, treat others with love, generosity, and respect and receive these things back threefold.  Witches generally view the world holistically, seeing all parts of existence whether spiritual, intellectual, or sensual as interconnected.  One of the most common teachings in the Craft is to love and respect life in all its forms.

    This sense of interconnection is seen in the honoring of the Goddess.  Most visions of the Goddess are based on the ancient view that She encompassed all life, good and bad.  Within the Goddess, there is no split between body and mind or matter and spirit.  Nature is viewed as sacred.  Since we are part of nature, we are sacred as well.  Witches find joy in the material as well as the spiritual worlds.  Sexuality is not something “dirty.”  Created by the Gods, it is sacred.  While some Witches honor a single aspect of the Goddess, most honor the divine partnership of the Goddess and the God.  Still others worship many Gods and Goddesses.  The Goddess is often seen in triple form, as Maiden, Mother, and Crone.  The God may be seen as both the Horned God of the animals and the Lord of the Green, God of death and resurrection.  Since many Witches believe in reincarnation, death is envisioned not as an end but merely as a natural transition.

Practices and beliefs

Most Witches perform rituals to mark natural transitions such as the lunar phases, equinoxes, solstices, and traditional agrarian festivals.  Witches use ritual to attune to natural rhythms, honor life transitions, and give thanks for the bounty of the Earth.

   Rituals usually involve the consecration of the space (usually a circle or sphere), honoring of the four Elements, invocation of deities, and a meal.  While it was once considered essential to be initiated by and practice with a coven (a group of 3-13 members), there is now widespread acceptance of self-initiated “solitaries” in the Craft.  Within the circle, power is raised through meditation, chants, drumming, dance, or song.  The power is used for healing or other forms of magic.  Magic and spellwork are systems for focusing energy to effect change.  Additional activities in the circle include divination, praying, reading poetry, or enacting dramas (often retellings of ancient myths).  Most Witches, to one degree or another, believe divinity resides within and can be accessed through the self.  They respect one another accordingly.

Setting the record straight

Witches are not anti-Christian or against any other positive faith.  Pagans of all paths respect the individual’s right to freedom of worship.  Pagans do not prosyletize or “recruit.”  Instead, they trust individuals to discover the spiritual path most appropriate for them.  Wiccan ethical principles temper personal freedom with personal responsibility.

    Two items often misunderstood by the public are the Book of Shadows and the pentagram.  The former is a compendium of a coven’s or a Witch’s ethics, rituals, spells, training techniques, and experiences.  The pentagram, or five-pointed star, has been known since Babylonian times and represents, among other things, protection, the human body, the four elements plus spirit, and perfect balance. 

    Lastly, while terms such as “white Witch” and “black magic” may seem like good clarifiers to separate Witches from Satanists, the terms are actually inherently racist and most Witches do not use them.  Male Witches are not called “warlocks” as this term derives from the Anglo-Saxon term for “oathbreaker.”

    Witchcraft is a dynamic, demanding spiritual path based in personal growth, natural rhythms, and an intense relationship with Divinity.  By working to heal the community and the Earth, Witches are making positive contributions to create a healthier world.

Recommended reading


Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler

The Complete Book of Witchcraft, Raymond Buckland

Witchcraft Today: The Modern Craft Movement, Chas S. Clifton, ed.

Book of Shadows, Phyllis Curott

Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, Rosemary Ellen Guiley

Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton

The Spiral Dance, Starhawk

Further information on Pagan paths
Modern Paganism
Recommended reading list
The story of one woman's journey to Witchcraft