The Concept of the Witch


The concept of the Witch in Western culture has gone through a rather interesting evolution, morphing from ‘wise one’ to ‘bride of Satan,’ and then to a watered down neo-pagan cult figure. The neo-pagan view can safely be ignored, I think, since it is not a real belief but more of a stance–in pre-Christian times ‘witches,’ though not known by that name, occupied an important place in their communities, as healers, counselors, midwives, and interpreters of nature; like doctors and scientists do today. In pre-Christian Europe, witches were held in high esteem.

It would be best to clarify the word Witch since it is in a very real sense a modern invention–meaning within the last thousand years. Witch is a mutilated word taken from the words ‘wicca’ and ‘wicce,’ which may have meant ‘wise one.’ These ‘wise ones’ were more than likely associated with what we would nowadays call magic; they were seen as individuals unusually gifted with the ability to communicate with the spirit world, also as healers and wise counselors. It is interesting to note that ‘wicca’ and ‘wicce’ are masculine and feminine, meaning that a witch could be from either gender.

With the coming of Christianity, several Middle Eastern ideas were introduced into the concept of the Witch. One of these was that of magic. It should be noted, however, that most ancient beliefs are loaded with practices that we would today call magical; nonetheless, the concept of magic has a specific origin. Magic comes from Magi, which in the ancient Persian religion denoted the followers of Zoroaster, who were said to be capable of reading the stars and of influencing fate because of this. Thus a foreign religious belief was integrated onto the concept of the Witch. Atop of this, several Babylonian ideas–sorcery, necromancy–were thrown into the mix. Further, because of the dualistic nature of Christian belief, knowledge and power can only come from two sources: God or the Devil. Since to be from God–the magic that comes from God–required very specific rituals and incantations, Witchcraft–magic from other religions, with its own rituals and incantations–had to be from the Devil.

The projection of demonic powers unto the practitioners of ancient European religions led to the modern conception of the Witch–though, of course, there is a psychological dynamic at work in all of this, since it is a quirk of the human mind to project intentionality onto everything. When disaster strikes, people always look for someone to blame, and the easiest people to blame have always been the powerless–which is kind of ironic considering how much supernatural power is then projected onto them.

Once the concept of the Witch had been denigrated, it could only be seen as something malevolent, and the particular prejudices of a belief system showed itself in the selection of who those malevolent ones would be.

The concept of the Witch in its malevolent incarnation is almost exclusively the product of Christianity. It is also, however, the one that has become the most influential, due to the extension of Western culture. Now, usually, when we think of Witches, we think of a malevolent entity allied with the powers of evil. That this was not always the case may be a historical verity; however, it is also conceivable that the Witch, as such, is a purely monotheistic concept that, while it did evolve from earlier pagan beliefs, developed as a hybrid concept in Christian soil.

The Witch, a practitioner of arcane magic and malevolent, as we understand her required a complete paradigm shift in the way people thought and related to nature. Not only was it necessary to separate the magic of God from that of the Devil, it was also necessary to remove the concept of magic from the sphere of God altogether. The manifestation of divine power, although indistinguishable from magic, could no longer be seen as magical since magic had come to be associated with foreign, rival religions, and thus had to be considered false under the new paradigm. More, since from the Christian perspective the world, nature, is false in itself, since the Christian believer expects to be rescued from this world and taken immaterially into a divine realm, everything associated with the earth, with nature, was suspect.

In short, the evolution of the Witch went from a simple term for wisdom to, under the boot of a new worldview, a repository for all that is evil and foul–with a curious and very revealing misogynistic strain.

For my part, I’ve always been interested in what people believe, and why they do. All beliefs, it seems to me, begin with a foundation of ideas, so that in order to understand a worldview we must first understand what those ideas are. For the Christian–especially the primitive Christian–the most fundamental, dominant ideas are those of spiritual warfare and of the dualistic nature of existence. For the Christian there are only two possibilities: either with God or with the Devil. Therefore, all practitioners of pagan religions were automatically deemed Devil worshipers. In this sense it can be said that the concept of the Witch is a purely Christian invention.

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