Across cultures and throughout history, wise women and medicine men have been casting their spells and crafting their magick. And now more than ever we’re seeing a resurgence of men and women going back to their roots to find mysticism they can weave into their modern lives. But what is witchcraft, and what makes a witch? Are witches only women? Is there really such a thing as a white or black magick? We asked the experts and tackled the hardest questions so you don’t have to. Ahead, your official guide.
What is witchcraft?
Witchcraft is defined as “the practice of and belief in magical skills and abilities that are able to be exercised individually by designated social groups or by persons with the necessary esoteric secret knowledge.” Although this definition is helpful, what actually is magick? To put it simply, magick is manipulating energy for the desired outcome. Aleister Crowley, one of the most famous occultists of all time, defines magick as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.” Crowley is the reason magick is spelled with a "k," to distinguish it from sleight of hand magic, like that of a stage magician. Witchcraft is the practice of using different elements and correspondences that are available (crystals, candles, cards, etc.) to cause a specific change or outcome to occur in alignment with the desire of an individual or group of individuals.
Witchcraft can be passed down through generations, and is called hereditary witchcraft, but it can also be taught and learned. But there’s a special kind of magick that comes along with learning witchcraft from your own heritage and background. Michael Cardenas, founder of Olde Ways, which offers tarot, reiki, and spell work to the public, weaves his Mexican ancestry into his practice in brujeria, which is Spanish for witchcraft. He combines this with traditional witchcraft and shamanism for her own sort of magick—and that’s perfectly okay. “I work closely with my ancestors and spirit guides, I commune with my gods through meditation, I make offerings, and I perform small rituals like burning incense and lighting candles for them on a daily basis, as well as elaborate rituals at different phases of the moon and cycles of the seasons in their honor,” Cardenas explains.
There are magick and folklore to be found throughout the world, even in the most unlikely places—like the Bible Belt of the South. Amelia Quint, a witch, astrologer, and founder of The Midheaven, uses her South Carolina roots to craft her own form of magick. “It’s an interesting place to have discovered witchcraft in the South because, although there’s a certain amount of conservatism here, it exists alongside a rich history of folk magic, especially along the coast. Outwardly magick is frowned upon as the “Devil’s work,” but behind closed doors, people still remember how to lay tricks and make mojo bags (even though some individuals wouldn’t recognize them as such),” she explains. For Quint, her Southern upbringing carries over to her own practice of witchcraft, which is influenced by hoodoo, or Southern conjure. By incorporating practices, like burning anointed candles, crafting sugar jars, and writing petitions, Quint is able to utilize her surroundings to bring even more power to her spells and rituals.
What is a witch?
There is a saying among the witches: “Once a witch, always a witch.” Reincarnation, or the idea that your soul is reborn in different bodies throughout time, is a common belief among witches—as is the belief that you’re a witch through each incarnation. But what does being a witch even mean? For Bri Luna, better known as The Hoodwitch, every woman is a witch, regardless of whether she knows it or not. “Tapping into your inner witch” means freedom, and in this way, being a witch is about unapologetically embracing nature to heal yourself and your community. Being a witch also means respecting every realm, both the seen and unseen, so you can be your most authentic self. But the word “witch” isn’t confined to just women; witch is a genderfluid term. For a lot of women, tapping into the goddess aspect of themselves is easier than for men, who have been closed off from that side of themselves due to pressure from society.
“A witch is a person who has a deep connection to their intuitive abilities, nature, and has the undeniable force of magick flowing through their veins,” adds Cardenas. And although not everyone is born intuitive or connected to the unseen energies and forces at play in the universe, magick is a muscle. It can be learned and worked, gained and strengthened. Claiming the word “witch” means allowing a part of yourself to manifest in a subtle way—it’s giving yourself permission to BE magick.
Working with the earth
Being in tune with nature is another important aspect of being a witch. Sarah Durham Wilson, a witch, priestess, writer, and founder of Do it girl, defines a witch as an awakened healer, aligned with the moon and sun, aka the feminine and masculine sides of our own soul and connection with divinity reflected in the natural world. She explains that a witch is someone who is in tune with Mother Earth and who chooses to heal herself and offers this same healing to other.
Being a witch means honoring the cycles of the earth as reflections of your own journey, and using magick to do so as effortlessly as possible. But can a witch be a witch if she, or he, doesn’t practice magick? Courtney Weber, a High Priestess in NYC, says that you can’t be a witch without magick. A witch connects to a spirit, creating change through unseen forces, in a manner that sits outside the dominant religious paradigm. She stresses that witches are everywhere in history throughout cultures, but she says that the word “witch” is not open to interpretation. “I’ve met individuals who embrace the title of witch but claim that doing magick is unethical. I’ve also met artists, feminists, self-empowerment workers who call themselves witches but who also don’t practice magick. They are doing wonderful work, but I personally believe that a witch and magick are synonymous. There is no such thing as a witch without magick,” she explains.
Is witchcraft a religion?
Witchcraft, like Buddhism, is more of a philosophy and practice than a religion. There is no singular God or Goddess honored in witchcraft, and each witch’s practice will be deeply personal, a combination of beliefs they’ve learned and picked up along their own journey. Some witches identify with a religion, like Wicca, and some do not. Luna falls into the latter category, “I don’t call my magick by any name, it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, culturally just like me. I’ve learned and implemented many useful rituals from witches and healers that I’ve met along my journey. 'Does this feel right?' I ask myself. I trust my intuition, and let it guide me,” she says.
Quint, like Luna, says that witchcraft is more of a way of life than a singular religion. Quint focuses on the means instead of the end—the idea that no matter what you worship, it’s all one part of the same thing. “I am a huge believer in perennialist philosophy—the idea that all religions are a revelation of some form of universal truth. I’m also really fascinated by the archetypes that appear over and over again throughout history and regardless of physical location, like the Dying God, the Virgin Goddess, the Earth Mother,” she explains.
Forms of witchcraft have been found through cultures throughout history, whether they’re seen through old Southern mojo bags or Mexican brujeria practices to the Celts worship of the solstices and equinoxes. The name may change, but the idea of honoring this earth and all her glory for a certain outcome is the same.
What about Wicca?
Wicca is a neo-pagan religion that’s loosely based on the beliefs of the ancient Celts. It’s a nature-based religion with an emphasis on honoring Goddess as well as God, and it celebrates holidays like the equinox and solstices in what’s known as The Wheel of the Year. Wicca was founded by Gerald Gardner in England in 1954, and was carried over to America by Raymond Buckland in 1964. Wicca is not an organized religion and has no singular holy book. Instead, Wiccans follow two laws; The Wiccan Rede, which says “An ye harm none, do what ye will”, and the Threefold Law or Rule of Three, “three times what thou givest returns to thee.” The emphasis in Wicca is that you harm none and you always listen to karma—or you reap the karmic consequences. It’s all about connecting to your highest power to leave the world a more loving place.
Surprisingly enough, the cult hit The Craft accurately portrayed a few important parts of Wicca at first. Wiccans do cast circles and call the quarters or elements. But more than anything, Wiccans don’t harm anyone or anything, which is why you can say everything bad happened at the end of the movie. Karma has no chill.
There are different sects of Wicca, like Gardnerian, Dianic, and Alexandrian Wicca, who all choose to honor Goddess and God slightly differently. They all honor faces of what’s known as The All, aka the universe and/or divinity, through rituals rooted in honoring the earth. Not every witch is a Wiccan, and not every Wiccan is a witch—it’s up to the individual!
Wiccan High Priestess Courtney Weber emphasizes starting with your own culture and magick before adopting anyone else’s, saying “If you come from a culture with magick, take what you need from Wicca, and if being Wiccan truly feels right for you, wonderful! But know that in your own heritage, you’ve already got the best of what’s available."
How to practice: coven vs. solitary
Some witches prefer to practice alone, celebrating the seasons and performing spells and rituals at their own pace and on their own terms. Many witches and spiritual workers are highly empathic and sensitive to other people’s energies, and being around large groups can be draining or overstimulating. Other witches prefer meeting in a group, also known as a coven, to celebrate holidays like full moon and equinoxes. Once again, both are completely okay and up to the individual to decide what’s right for them!
Wiccan covens are classically led by a High Priestess and a High Priest. Although Wicca is seen as a progressive religion, some covens still subscribe to the older, more conservative views of their founders, like stances on abortion and policies requiring both a man and a woman to lead a coven gathering. Weber is trying to bring Wicca into the new age. “I am a progressive Wiccan. More traditional Wicca holds a very firm theology of the Lady and the Lord giving life to all of the universe. I believe the divine is much more complicated than that, having layered genders or no gender at all,” she explains.
White Magick vs. Black Magick
As you delve more into learning about witchcraft and magick, you’ll notice that some people say they work with “white magick” or “black magick.” The thing is that energy is energy, magick is magick and it’s not inherently good or bad, positive or negative, black or white. It just is. Beyond that, claiming something positive as white and negative as black is just energetically incorrect. Weber clarifies saying, “The color black absorbs light. If you used a black candle in Witchcraft, it can absorb energetic things—positive and negative. White reflects light and in witchcraft, white can reflect things—both positive and negative. Calling magick “black or white” is not only energetically incorrect, it’s inherently racist. Some witchcraft is harmful. Some witchcraft is helpful. Most witchcraft is a mixed bag of harm and help. It has no color.”
Many witches perform divination, aka working with a certain medium to help divine the future. This comes in many shapes and forms, like tarot cards, runes, the I Ching, oracle cards, or even a bowl of water—the options are endless. Humans have always been fascinated by knowing the unknowable, and by tapping into our higher conscious, as well as human consciousness, we are able to have a better grasp of the way things will play out. But very often, a reading will leave you with more questions about the way you handle situations than it will with foolproof solutions. You try to ask the tarot cards a question about what will happen only to get schooled. Divination is a way of accessing parts of yourself that you’re usually unaware of, by working with your subtle body and energy as well as your higher consciousness.
How can witchcraft be more inclusive?
You don’t have to look far to see how trendy it is to be a witch. The witchy look is in but it’s also important to represent what witchcraft actually is. We need to distinguish between witch as a fashion statement and witchcraft itself. Witches aren’t only white women, they’re women and men of color too, and it’s important to remember this. Some people may prefer to dress witchy, but some witches prefer not to wear it so loudly, and that doesn’t make them any less of a witch!
Cardenas emphasizes that witchcraft is not exclusive to any gender, race, or sexual preference. It’s inclusive of all races, genders, and sexual preferences. The best way to make this happen? Start a coven that’s multicultural, genderfluid, free-thinking, and revolutionary. “Nature has no ethnicity and does not identify as any particular gender or sexual preference. If you have the calling to witchcraft and you feel it in your bones that’s the only validation you need!” Cardenas says.
Is witchcraft actually evil?
Although there are Satanic witches out there, most witches aren’t. Most witches live in harmony with the earth, honoring whatever energy they’re working with while doing their best to not harm anyone or anything in the process. But there’s still a stigma in the mainstream that dictates witchcraft as evil and unethical, which most of the time isn’t the case at all.
Thoughts become things, and you put power into things by focusing on them. Cardenas thinks it’s important to change perceptions by being open about your practices. By focusing on the present, you’re creating a ripple effect and are able to start shaping the future.
And instead of focusing on what separates us from one another spiritually, we need to shift the conversation toward what we share. As Quint points out, witchcraft is a form of mysticism, of folklore, and all the major religions of the world have mystical sects. By focusing on the fact that we’re all working on a common goal, and that we’re all honoring the same universe, we can start moving toward a more understanding and inclusive future.
Starting your path
The old ways are calling, but you’re not sure how to answer. How can you start your own practice with witchcraft? First off, notice what’s around you. Talk to your family. Have an aunt interested in herbs or a grandma that was always making crazy oils? Talk to them. See if there’s anything mystical that’s been passed down from generations before you. Go to your local used bookstore, wander into the occult and religious sections, and see what calls you. Durham Wilson says to read about the Dark Goddess before calling out to her. Learn about the shadows before you step into them. Read all you can before deciding what it is you believe in.
Another important tip? Follow your gut.”The first the magick changes is the self.” Weber explains, “Witchcraft will shake out the comfortable and provide practitioners with a new reality that can be scary and is certainly uncomfortable at first, but makes the practitioner stronger in the end. There is a need to have faith in the process. That in itself is a challenge.” Following your OWN intuition is something every single person we interviewed for this piece stresses. No one knows you like you know you, so listen. Use your gut and be smart—don’t join any cults and don’t join a group that requires large sums of money or manipulates you. Remember, teachers will come when the student is ready.
Practice yoga, spend time under the moon, buy some crystals, talk to the flowers, and spend time in nature. Buy runes or tarot cards or an oracle deck. Witchcraft is taking us back to the most natural and vibrant and raw parts of our soul, so find what feels like home and move toward it. And don’t be afraid to use the Internet! There are plenty of online resources to help start your journey. Be open, talk to other people, and live from a place of love, and everything else will fall into place.