What is a Witch? by Tansy Firedragon (Rachel Patterson)
A hunched figure crouched over a cauldron stirring a mysterious brew in the midst of a kitchen cluttered with herbs, lotions and potions and all manner of unidentifiable items, the ceiling dangling with bunches of herbs drying and a roaring fire in the hearth. Is that a witch?
What about the green skinned hag, cackling to herself as she rides up into the skies on her broomstick having just pushed a couple of children into her oven. Is that a witch?
How about a bare foot waif of a girl (or boy) with long flowing hair adorned with flowers who sings as she/he dances over the meadows wearing tie dye clothes. Is that a witch?
A gypsy sitting in her caravan complete with headscarf and gold hoop earrings gazing deeply into her crystal ball? Is that a witch?
Teenagers wearing dark clothes, striped tights and black lipstick and heavy eyeliner dabbling with candles and skulls. Is that a witch?
The girls from Charmed dressed in skimpy outfits throwing fire balls at demons. Is that a witch?
Sheesh…from fairy tales to Hollywood and everything in between we have some pretty interesting ideas of what a witch is and most of them completely and utterly wrong although I do have bunches of herbs hanging in my kitchen…and I own a cauldron and striped tights…
I think, and bear in mind this is my own personal view that there are a HUGE number of variations of what being a witch is, a real witch that is rather than a fairytale/Hollywood creation. The pagan umbrella covers so many different pathways and variations of those same pathways and at the end of the day each person is an individual and each journey will be very personal and different for everyone.
When you get down to basic details what makes a witch? In fact what makes someone a pagan? I think the common dominator to it all is … nature…probably…but not always…see how difficult this is?
But then should there be a common dominator? We are all individual and we are most certainly all unique, each and every one of us. But we do like our labels…
The problem with trying to put labels on paganism is that it is covers so many different pathways and within those pathways so many more individual journeys.
Just within witchcraft there are hundreds of different ‘trouser legs of reality’ (the term is blatantly stolen from the amazing Sir Terry Pratchett). I am a Witch and quite often am referred to or refer to myself as a Kitchen Witch but does that cover it all and what on earth is a Kitchen Witch anyway? Believe me I get asked that a lot.
Now whilst I do like to think I am a bit of a whizz in the kitchen I am also most definitely a Kitchen Witch of the witchcraft variety. I follow the path of the old ways, I work with the Goddesses and the Gods, I live in harmony with nature and I work the Craft. So what makes me specifically a kitchen witch? I like to use whatever is at hand, I don’t need fancy schmancy tools or expensive items and I work a lot of my magic when I am cooking food or working with herbs and plants. But…I also do a lot of things that could bring me under the label Hedge Witch – hedgeriding, foraging, herbalism…
A lot of my rituals have a Wiccan structure to them, but that is probably because I have worked through the Wiccan degrees but I also add in bits of druidry and shamanic practice to whatever I am doing. I have studied and work with the magical practice of Hoodoo and use a lot of folk magic in my Craft as well.
Perhaps it makes me an Eclectic Witch but I am not sure about that word…eclectic sounds to me like a term to cover ‘anything else left over’ a bit like being a Miscellaneous Witch…although I do quite like the sound of that.
Essentially my personal pathway is a collection of bits and pieces that I take from each new pathway I learn about, I am made up from pagan flotsam and jetsam…but what I have created is my very own unique and individual journey and that is how I like to work, it is mine and it works for me.
Obviously there are some ‘rules’ within magic that are worth listening to and some areas of the Craft that are best left alone until you are experienced and know what you are doing but I firmly believe that whatever you do in your own personal practice is never wrong, if it feels right go with it, if your intuition screams at you to stop then listen to it. Just because someone in a book or on the internet says “the athame must go on this side of the altar” or “you must use herb xyz in this spell” doesn’t make it right for you. Books, teachers, the internet all these resources that are now available to us are brilliant (obviously I am going to say that being an author and a teacher … ahem…) but in my opinion they are there for guidance and to give support and suggestions they are not written in stone and should be flexible.
I guess it also depends if you like doing your own thing or prefer a strict structure, I think perhaps at the beginning of our journey it is better to have some guidelines to work by. There are things that I did when I started this pathway that I don’t do now, either I don’t feel they work for me or are not necessary in my own practice but I learnt, with each step I gained knowledge and most definitely experience. There is no shortcut to experience you can read all the information you like, you can have the ability to quote spells and magical text til the cows come home but unless you actually put it into practice you won’t really learn from it.
I study, I like to study, I like to learn about new things and I love to research. I spent a long time just doing that; learning, reading and studying and I accumulated a lot of information but it wasn’t until I actually got out there, outside into the world and took part in my first ritual with others that I really started gaining experience, although I do still keep studying even years later…
To me witchcraft is my religion, it is my way of life, it is who I am and how I live each day. It is a journey of self discovery, learning, growth and a very beautiful and rewarding way of life based upon reverence for nature, respect for all life and the planet that we live on.
Although I work with the Goddesses and the Gods, both entities of the great All and I believe we all carry a part of the Goddess within us not all witches or pagans will have the same beliefs. The true explanation of deity is held within each of our own hearts whether it be in the form of the Goddess, Mother Earth, Father Sky, universal spirit or ‘the force’…
I started my pathway by following and observing the eight Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year but I have found now that I tend to follow the seasons rather than set dates on a calendar and I work with the esbats to connect with the magic of the moon, this gives me a structure to work from.
Let’s have a look at a few of the witchcraft branches, these are only brief descriptions and are most definitely not a ‘one size fits all’ detail, but just to give some sort of outline.
I started out as a solitary witch but have been a member of a coven (both online and offline) for a few years now and there are many witchcraft traditions that have covens but it doesn’t suit everyone.
Kitchen Witch we have covered so what about Hedge Witch? Similar in that they work with herbs, foraging and nature and a Hedge Witch will usually be solitary, a folk healer and a herbalist that ‘rides the hedge’ between the worlds as a seer and a healer.
Green Witchcraft is I think a fairly modern term, to me it is an eco warrior that may work with herbal magic, natural magic and possibly a bit of kitchen witchcraft thrown in for good measure.
Hereditary or family tradition are witches who can claim a lineage in the Craft with the individual traditions passed through blood line family members.
Wicca is a structured modern practice dating back to the 1940/50s and introduced by Gerald Gardner it draws upon some ancient pagan practices and rituals with usually a duotheistic view of deity. Wiccans celebrate the sabbats and follow the Wiccan Rede (in short do what ye will but harm none).
A Witch is not always a Wiccan and a Wiccan is not always a Witch…
Gardnerian Wicca was from Gerald Gardners' own experience, creativity and inspiration, along with input from Doreen Valiente. To be a member of this tradition, one must be initiated by another member.
Alexandrian Wicca - In the early 1960s, Alex Sanders was initiated into Gardnerian Witchcraft. Differences in opinion between Alex and other prominent Gardnerians of the time caused Alex to branch off and form what would later become known as the “Alexandrian tradition” of Witchcraft.
The Dianic tradition is considered a feminist Wicca, honouring the goddess of the moon and hunt, Diana, known as Artemis to the Greeks. Dianic covens are often made up exclusively of women. Usually these covens focus their energy on the Goddess as the Great Mother and creator.
Seax Wicca was founded by Raymond Buckland in 1973, creating a tradition that followed his ideas of a more Anglo-Saxon path.
Fairy Witchcraft is where a practitioner works with the faerie tradition and magic of the Fae.
Add to that the other pagan (I use the term pagan for want of a better collective word) pathways…Shamanic practices, Ceremonial, Heathen, Hellenic, Stregheria, Cabot, Greco-Roman…the list goes on!
And then there are those that don’t want or feel the need for any kind of label and I have met a lot of lovely people that follow a very similar path to mine…but would never dream of calling themselves a Witch or anything else.
At the end of the day if the pathway you follow works for you, if it fills you with joy, if it leads you to discover yourself and how to create a truly wonderful life then do it.
You don’t need a label…just be YOU.
originally published in the Pendle ezine