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The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World

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The author of the popular Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells and Encyclopedia of Spirits now explores the exciting magic and power of the mystical world of witches in Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, a comprehensive reference book that covers everything you ever wanted to know about this fascinating topic.

Folklore expert Judika Illes introduces readers to mythic witches, modern witches, sacred goddess witches, even demon witches, male and female witches, witches from all over the globe. She takes readers on an enchanting tour through witchcraft’s history, mythology, and folklore, where they will discover a miscellany of facts including magic spells, rituals, potions, recipes, celebrations, traditions, and much more.
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The author of the popular Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells and Encyclopedia of Spirits now explores the exciting magic and power of the mystical world of witches in Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, a comprehensive reference book that covers everything you ever wanted to know about this fascinating topic.

Folklore expert Judika Illes introduces readers to mythic witches, modern witches, sacred goddess witches, even demon witches, male and female witches, witches from all over the globe. She takes readers on an enchanting tour through witchcraft’s history, mythology, and folklore, where they will discover a miscellany of facts including magic spells, rituals, potions, recipes, celebrations, traditions, and much more.
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The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft

Judika Illes

the complete a–z for the entire magical world

For Clara Fisher and Irma Illes, with love

In memory of Zsuzsanna and Margit Grosz

Table of Contents

Cover Page

Title Page



Elements of Witchcraft


Books of Magic and Witchcraft


Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

Creative Arts

Dictionary of Witchcraft: A Magical Vocabulary

The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods

Ergot, The Corn Mother, and The Rye Wolf


Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

Food and Drink

The Hag

The Horned One and The Devil

Magical Arts

Magical Professions

Places: A witch’s Travel Guide

Tools of Witchcraft

Witchcraft Hall of Fame

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

Women’s Mysteries

Wormwood and Garlic: Dangers and Protection



Other Book By


About the Publisher


Most of my clothes are black. I have a black cat. My favorite holiday is Halloween. I have perpetually unruly hair. Given the right company, I will happily chatter on about astrology, magic, herbs, and divination. I write books of magic spells. So perhaps it’s not surprising that periodically I’m asked whether I’m a witch.

Invariably, my response is to say that my answer depends upon the inquirer’s definition of witchcraft. Inevitably this leads to frustration (and often to anger) on the part of the inquirer: they think they’ve asked a very simple, straightforward question because, of course, every child, any idiot so to speak, knows the definition of “witch.” Their perception is that I’m being snippy and evasive (stereotypical witch behavior, incidentally) when in fact I’m just wary. I’ve already experienced too many unpleasant encounters with those whose definitions of witchcraft did not correspond with my own—or with each other’s for that matter. I’ve learned that, just like beauty, what constitutes witchcraft is dependent upon the eye of its beholder.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look in;  the dictionary.

The following definition is from Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary:

WITCH (n ME wicche fr. OE wicca, masc. wizard and wicce fem. witch; akin to MHG wicken to bewitch, OE wigle divination, OHG wih holy—more at victim)

1a. Wizard, Sorcerer

1b. a woman practicing the black arts: SORCERESS

1c. one supposed to possess supernatural powers esp. by compact with devil or familiar

1d. or Witcher: Dowser

2. an ugly old woman: HAG

3. a charming or alluring woman

Oh boy, we’ve got some contradictions right there. Which witch does my inquirer suppose me to be? Should I take the question as a compliment or as an insult? It’s probably safe to presume that most women wouldn’t strongly object to the insinuation that they’re charming or alluring but what if the witch this particular questioner has in mind is actually that ugly old hag or Satan’s minion?

Hags, wizards, compacts with the devil: these definitions, or at least the words used to express them, demonstrate an archaic tone. In all fairness, I grabbed the first dictionary at hand. The definition quoted above comes from a well-worn 1965 edition, not that long ago considering the entire scope of time, but still, perhaps a newer edition might offer a more modern definition. With the wonders of modern technology and automatic updates, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary is about as up-to-date as dictionaries get, yet its definition of the word witch is similar to the one from 1965 with but one significant addition:


1: one that is credited with usually malignant supernatural powers; especially: a woman practicing usually black witchcraft often with the aid of a devil or familiar:


2: an ugly old woman: HAG

3: a charming or alluring girl or woman

4: a practitioner of Wicca

Now in addition to “practicing usually black witchcraft” the witch may also be “a practitioner of Wicca” although whether Wicca and black witchcraft are different or synonymous is not addressed.

Both dictionary definitions link witches with women; at least that much seems clear. Or is it? The further one searches for a definitive definition of the witch the more elusive and labyrinthine the subject becomes.

Other references suggest a narrower definition of witchcraft, albeit with greater flexibility regarding gender. According to Dr Margaret Alice Murray, the controversial scholar who wrote a long-standing definition of witchcraft for the Encyclopedia Britannica, the word “witch” has been used since the fifteenth century almost exclusively to describe persons, either male or female, who worked magic.

Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend further clarifies this issue of gender. That book defines a witch as

a person who practices sorcery; a sorcerer or sorceress; one having supernatural powers in the natural world, especially to work evil and usually by association with evil spirits or the Devil: formerly applied to both men and women but now generally restricted to women. Belief in witches exists in all lands, from earliest times to the present day.

Although Margaret Murray’s definition is neutral in tone, the others possess, to varying degrees, an air of malevolency. So perhaps I should be insulted at the suggestion that I’m “witchy.”

You want a really virulent definition of “witch”? Try this one:

“Witches are the devil’s whores who steal milk, raise storms, ride on goats or broomsticks, lame or maim people, torture babies in their cradles, change things into different shapes so that a human being seems to be a cow or an ox and force people into love and immorality.”

Martin Luther, 1522

Perhaps not. Maybe I should be flattered. Author Raymond Buckland, a pivotal figure in the evolution of modern Wicca and an authority on magic, divination, and witchcraft, acknowledges the very same etymology quoted in the dictionaries yet proposes a positive understanding of the word “witch”:

The actual meaning of the word Witch is linked to “wisdom” and is the same root as “to have wit” and “to know.” It comes from the Anglo-Saxon wicce (f) or wicca (m) meaning “wise one,” witches being both female and male.

On the other hand, many would advise me to absolutely not engage in discussion with anyone who wishes to know whether I’m a witch, not because of any potential insult but because the whole notion of witches and witchcraft is absurd. Their definition of “witch” doesn’t extend to living, breathing human beings. I can’t possibly be a witch; it’s not even worth discussing, because witches are made up, fictional: they don’t exist outside fairy tales, stories, and legends. Obviously anyone asking me this question is simple-minded, delusional, mentally ill or just teasing. Those adhering to this definition may in fact love witchcraft very much—in its place, which is fiction. Their witches exist in realms inhabited by trolls, ogres, fire-breathing dragons, and handsome princes who miraculously arrive on white horses at the very last second. They are integral to fairy and folk tales but are not perceived as belonging to “real life” except as a story-teller’s device.

Sophisticated minds, especially those of a Jungian bent, might also dispute the reality of a living, breathing, practicing witch—although their objection is based on a completely different definition of “witch.” For them, the witch is not an individual belonging either to real life or fairy tales but is an extremely powerful archetype, a reflection of human fears and desire. That the witch-figure is universally recognized and understood all over the globe is hardly surprising because, of course, human archetypes are universal and shared by all.

In true Jungian terminology—as defined by Carl Jung, a man not averse to metaphysical study—witches are projections of the dark side of the anima, the female side, of human nature.

Furthermore, that archetypal witch, the one so prominently featured in Halloween iconography, is recognizable as a “witch” virtually everywhere on Earth: the concept of the solitary person (depending upon culture it is not always a woman) in touch with the secret powers of nature and willing to put those powers into practical use resonates around the world, although the general attitude towards this person may differ greatly.

Have we exhausted all possible ways to define “witch”? Oh, no. Not yet, not hardly, not by a long shot. We’ve just begun to explore the many ways the word is understood by different people. Yet another definition’s many adherents possess no consensus regarding whether witches really exist, but they do agree that, whether witches live and breathe or are merely fantasy figures, the witch is not truly human. This witch is defined as a supernatural being, living in our midst, who only appears to be human but is actually some sort of different species, possessing hereditary superpowers and performing feats impossible for a mere mortal. This type of witch is the kind most frequently seen on television and in movies. Often they’re unhappy because they’d really like to be human: think Bell, Book and Candle or Bewitched. Sometimes, like Harry Potter, they’ve had miserable, unhappy existences as human beings, but are delighted to discover that they are really witches and whose lives are much happier spent in an alternative witch universe. Witchcraft is not learned or achieved through compact with either devil or angel but is hereditary, a matter of genetic destiny.

If my inquirer subscribes to this notion of witchcraft, mere verbal affirmation will not be a sufficient answer for him. He will want a demonstration of my powers because these witches can do things other people can’t, such as fly or teleport. If he’s really convinced I’m a witch, my protestations that I lack super-powers won’t be believed; he’ll think I’m just being coy or secretive, snippy and evasive once again.

Attempts to pin down a rigid definition of witchcraft, one shared by all, are something like entering a carnival fun-house, a hall of mirrors, where asking someone to define what is a witch reveals more about that person than about either witches or witchcraft. We look at the same image but see different things. We use one word but mean different things. So many people love, loathe, and are passionately fascinated by witchcraft, yet there are so many conflicting definitions of what constitutes a witch, each of which may be deeply, sincerely, and passionately held.

Although most people are absolutely sure that they can precisely define the word “witch,” there is profound disagreement and contradiction amongst their definitions. For instance, although I recognize that every one of the preceding definitions possesses adherents, not one of them entirely satisfies my own personal perception of witches. And yet, had I not in recent years come into contact with so many whose definitions of the word differed so much from my own, I, too, would have been absolutely sure that I understood exactly what everyone else would understand to be a witch.

What isn’t expressed in any of the definitions given above is a perception of the witch as a figure of female empowerment: in a world of good, polite, agreeable, well-behaved, passive girls, the witch is an independent, empowered, autonomous, frequently assertive, and defiant woman, beholden to no one. (Unless, of course, you subscribe to the notion of the witch as a minion of Satan, in which case she couldn’t be more beholden.) Candace Savage, author of Witch: The Wild Ride from Wicked to Wicca, describes the witch as embodying “bad girl power.” Whether one admires, detests or fears powerful women will have a lot to do with how one defines and perceives the witch.

Of course, there is another significant reason, perhaps the most crucial of all, as to why one shouldn’t casually identify oneself as a witch without first understanding what that word means to others: safety. Does the other party perceive witches as admirable beings to emulate, or as evil beings to avoid or even exterminate? If you identify yourself as a witch, are you a role model, a kindred spirit, or the enemy?

Despite definitions linking witches to evil and malfeasance, historically it has been the witch who has been victim rather than perpetrator, most notoriously in Europe during the era known alternately as the Burning Times, the Witch-hunts or the Witch-craze. This was quite a long period, spanning roughly from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries and affecting to varying degrees, with very few exceptions, virtually the entire European continent. During this period attempts were made to root out all facets of witchcraft and witchery. (Explanations vary regarding the motivation of the witch-hunters as well as the true identity of the victims—were they really witches in other words—which once again leads us back to definitions of witches and witchcraft.) Those accused of witchcraft were arrested; brutal torture was used to obtain confessions as well as identification of still more witches. Estimates of the numbers killed as witches during the Burning Times range from the tens of thousands to millions, depending upon one’s source.

This isn’t just old history incidentally, cautionary tales of long ago. Although the Witchcraze eventually burned itself out in Europe, today’s newspapers periodically, with some frequency, report the brutal murders of people identified as witches in India and throughout Africa. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is still not safe, depending where you’re located, to be branded a witch.

Frankly, the more one discusses witches, the more confusing the matter becomes. Perhaps if one could accurately define “witchcraft,” defining the witch would be easier. Think again. The only thing more elusive than a single, definitive definition of the witch is one precise explanation of the craft that she practices!

Let’s take another look at the dictionary. How does that 1965 edition, for instance, define witchcraft? Three possibilities are offered:


1a. the use of sorcery or magic

1b. intercourse with the devil or with a familiar

2. an irresistible influence or fascination:


The definition suggesting that witchcraft is “the use of sorcery or magic” is widely accepted. Many people, including many self-professed witches, perceive it to be an obvious fact that witchcraft is synonymous with the magical arts. Where they differ is whether that practice is perceived as natural, and worthy of respect and admiration, or whether it is perceived as sinful, evil, and unhealthy.

Have we finally reached a consensus? Is a witch, then, someone who uses sorcery or magic? Not so fast. That definition leads to even more questions. For instance, exactly how much magic or sorcery does one have to use to be considered a witch? At what point are you a witch? Do you need a year and a day of study, as some believe, or does one single spell or experiment with divination define you as a witch? Teenagers playing with ouija boards: are they witches? Does dabbling in witchcraft make you a witch or is some dedication to the magical arts, some mastery, required? Do your spells have to be successful? What if you stop casting spells but retain the knowledge, are you still a witch? Are you a witch if you want to cast spells, or dream about spell-casting, but, for one reason or another, don’t?

Of course, all this ignores the even bigger question at the root of this definition of witchcraft. These considerations presuppose that you accept the reality of magic power: a minority position in modern Western society. Most people don’t believe in magic, or at least officially say they don’t. If magic and sorcery don’t exist, does witchcraft?

Well, yes, maybe it could, depending once again upon your definition. Another definition harks back to the original Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word. “Witchcraft: the craft of the wise, the knowledgeable.” This may be understood to refer to magical workings, however Raymond Buckland proposes a definition of witchcraft not included in the dictionary: witchcraft

is an ancient Pagan religion with a belief in both male and female deities, with a reverence for nature and all life, and recognition of a need for fertility among plants, animals and humans. In western Europe Witchcraft grew into a loosely formalized religion with its own priesthood.

Witchcraft, then, is no longer sorcery or magic but religion, with the witch, the wise one, a member of its priesthood.

Buckland’s definition envisions witchcraft as a specific religious path with doctrines and practices as well defined as that of any other religious faith, even if loosely formalized. Others also perceive a religious root but differ on other aspects: according to these authorities the whole concept of “witchcraft” is a construct created by Christians who had hostile perceptions of pagan spirituality. Pagan deities were degraded into demons and devils, their devotees maligned as witches: one person’s god transformed into another person’s devil, in other words. These spiritual traditions aren’t one but many: what unifies them is the Christian perception of them as evil and devilish.

Witchcraft as religion? The scary old woman in the forest doesn’t wish to harm you but only wants to practice her religion in peace? That concept would surprise—and perhaps disappoint—many people. Witchcraft as religion does offer the possibility of witchcraft without magic. If you accept the definition of witchcraft as being a suppressed pagan religion, then it exists even if magic doesn’t. One can celebrate the cycles of the year, the inherent sacredness of Earth, without recourse to magic.

Witchcraft as religion, witchcraft as magical art: Margaret Murray recognized that one single word was being used to express different concepts. She distinguished between what she termed “operative witchcraft,” defined as the casting of spells or charms, for either good or ill and common to every nation as part of shared human heritage, and “ritual witchcraft,” the ancient religion of Western Europe.

Various definitions of “witch,” including Carl Jung’s, make frequent reference to the female sex. During the Burning Times, victims were overwhelmingly female. In fact, your greatest risk factor for being accused of witchcraft and killed during the Burning Times in most of Europe (exceptions: Finland, Estonia, and Iceland) was being a woman. Some would argue that this is because witchcraft is the surviving remnant of women’s ancient shamanic arts. Once sacred and valued, over the centuries these shamanic arts became denigrated, diabolized, feared, and driven underground: surviving practitioners, the “witches,” would be regarded with fear or respect, depending upon the perspective of the beholder.

On the other hand, maybe there is no “witchcraft,” only misogyny. Maybe magic and spirituality are irrelevant to my questioner; what he’s really trying to tell me is that I’m not “nice.” The word “witch” is often used as a pejorative for women, a slur, a derogatory insult-word. As an example, a recent letter to the editor from a reader of People magazine described a particularly unpopular female participant in a realitytelevision show as “a real witch.” It was emphatically not meant as a compliment. The letter-writer makes no assertions whatsoever regarding this woman’s spiritual beliefs or magic power; instead it was intended as a description of character. A “witch” is understood to be disagreeable, deceitful, immoral or amoral, strident, defiant, arrogant, unpleasant, overly assertive, “unfeminine,” not “nice” or “lady-like,” in short, an uppity woman.

Within the metaphysical, magical community, “witch” may be a badge of pride and a title of respect, although even here, that’s not consistently so. Outside that community, the use of the word “witch” is quite often intended as an insult—very often the insult-word of choice for those who prefer not to sully their lips with that other common slur-word for women with which witch rhymes. Used to describe a spiritual devotee or a magical practitioner, “witch” is most often a woman but may refer to a man; used as an insult, a “witch” is always female.

So does “witch” refer to a specific type of woman, to specific behaviors some perceive as unattractive or dangerous in women, or does it refer to all women, “every woman a witch” as the old saying goes? “Witch” as slur doesn’t preclude a magical understanding. Some perceive that inherent in the female sex—going right back to that first woman Eve with her too familiar snake—every woman is a witch or at least potentially so, that latent witch in the making. This perspective is expressed most explicitly—and dangerously—in The Malleus Maleficarum, the most influential of witch-hunter’s manuals, but it didn’t disappear with the witch-hunts, making frequent modern appearances, as for instance in Fritz Leiber’s novel, Conjure Wife, whose hero, a distinguished anthropology professor, an expert (or so he thinks!) on magical practices, is shocked to discover the truth about the female sex—including his own wife.

On the other hand—and when discussing witchcraft there seems always to be another hand—some would agree with that old statement “every woman a witch” yet understand it as a positive affirmation: every woman’s potential for witchcraft perceived as every woman’s personal connection with the divine Feminine; every woman a magical goddess on Earth, a living conduit to the sacred, something to be encouraged, cherished and protected, not discouraged and exterminated.

So when someone asks whether you are a witch, are they trying to determine whether you are a practitioner of the magical arts, a living goddess, a danger to society, a snippy, evasive woman, a follower of a specific spiritual path, or some or all of the above?

Maybe it’s none of the above. We haven’t run out of definitions yet. Maybe witchcraft has nothing to do with religion, spirituality or magic, or at least not as those terms are understood today. Another definition suggests that witchcraft derives from the healing arts, once largely the domain of women. Once upon a time, women held significant, prominent roles as community healers. As medicine became an exclusively male profession, legally enforced as such, women who attempted to maintain their former roles were branded as dangerous “witches.” Women were forbidden to study medicine, forbidden to practice medicine—leading to a medieval definition of witchcraft: “If a woman dare to cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die.” Essentially these witches are practicing medicine without a license, a practice that remains illegal today, although with far less dire consequences.

Of course, one can argue that healing is (or was) a spiritual practice, that healing is (or was) a magical art and that some would define those law-breaking practitioners, those “witches” who continued to practice in secret, as uppity, defiant, arrogant women, although others might call them heroines.

We’re going in circles. With all these contradictions and ambiguity one would imagine the witch to be some obscure figure. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It would be extremely difficult to find anyone, from the smallest child to the most remote villager, who doesn’t know what a witch is—or at least a witch as defined by their definition.

This passionate debate regarding the true identity of witches only underscores how deeply the witch resonates in each person’s consciousness. Because one’s own individual personal definition rings so clearly and profoundly, any other definition seems inadequate, misguided or just plain wrong. Witches evoke a passionate response, whether that passion resonates as fear or as love. People emulate witches. They long for witches in times of trouble. They run from witches as sources of trouble. Witches are held up as role models or as examples of exactly what not to be. Even those who fear, hate, and despise witches can’t leave them alone, as history has too often tragically proved.

If one attempts to remove the witch-figure from worldwide folklore, you promptly eliminate the vast majority of fairy and folk tales. Think about the Western canon of fairy tales: if there’s no witch, then there’s no Hansel and Gretel, no Beauty and the Beast, no Snow White or Rapunzel. Witchcraft doesn’t only figure in entertainment dating from days of yore; the witch continually reappears, evolving with the times. Need we even say “Harry Potter”? If there’s no witch, count the movies, books, and television shows that no longer exist. Now some might protest that these works do not reflect the reality of witchcraft, but as we’ve seen, there is no single, simple reality of witchcraft. Witchcraft is important precisely because it’s so fluid, so mysterious, so resistant to definition, so able to touch so many different buttons in so many souls.

Is there any common denominator that underlies or unifies all these differing theories of witchcraft? Maybe. There is yet another theory of witchcraft. This vision understands witchcraft to be the surviving vestiges of ancient Paleolithic culture originally shared by all human societies all over Earth: witchcraft as the original religion, the cult of Earth’s powers, the mother of spirituality. As people spread out, migrated and diverged, variations emerged; however witchcraft’s roots remain universal. As Funk and Wagnalls succinctly put it: “Belief in witches exists in all lands, from earliest times to the present day.” This primal witch is our shared human heritage, although whether one reacts to her with love, awe, fear, and/or revulsion depends upon many factors.

Modern religions/spiritual paths as well as magical practices of all kinds, including the healing arts, may be understood as descending from this primal “witchcraft”’—or as reactions against it. Those who understand witches to be not flesh-and-blood reality but stories and archetypes can also trace the descent of their witch from this primal witchcraft.

Another way of understanding this primal witchcraft is as a worldview, a way of seeing, looking at and understanding the universe. Looking at the witch reveals more about the gazer then the witch. Instead, let’s try looking through that primal witch’s eyes. In witchcraft’s worldview, Earth is a place of mystery and wonder, full of powers of which one can avail oneself, if one only knows how. The witch is the one who knows. A good majority of the words used around the world, in various languages, not just Anglo-Saxon, to identify the concept of the “witch” involve acquisition of wisdom. A Russian euphemism for witches and sorcerers translates as “people with knowledge.” The witch isn’t just a smart person, however; what the witch knows is more than just common knowledge. The witch knows Earth’s secrets.

Whether you perceive the witch as powerful or evil may depend upon whether you perceive knowledge as desirable or dangerous; whether you perceive that human knowledge is something that should be limited. The witch doesn’t think so. She, or he as the case may be, wants to know. This may be the heart of the matter.

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, a famous Irish prayer attributed to that snake-banishing saint, begs God’s protection against “incantations of false prophets, against the black laws of paganism, against spells of women, smiths and druids, against all knowledge that is forbidden the human soul.”

Although in Christian myth, Original Sin, triggered by the serpent’s temptation of Eve, is often understood to be sex, a close reading of the Bible reveals that what the snake really offers Eve is knowledge. In fact, wherever snakes and people exist together, snakes are associated with wisdom—and with witchcraft. In various subversive retellings of that biblical tale, ancient Gnostic as well as neo-Pagan, the snake is attempting to assist Eve, to be her ally, not to entrap her.

Looking through the witch’s eyes may offer a very different perspective than that which many modern people are accustomed. One sees a world of power and mystery, full of secrets, delights, and dangers to be uncovered. However it is not a black-and-white world; it is not a world with rigidly distinct boundaries but a transformative world, a world filled with possibility, not what is but what could be, a blending, fluid, shifting but rhythmically consistent landscape.

It is no accident that the heavenly body universally associated with witchcraft is the moon, whose shape changes continually, although her rhythm is constant

It is no accident that the element universally associated with witchcraft is water, whose tides are ruled by the moon; water appears, disappears, changes shape, shifts continually, but remains rhythmically constant

It is no accident that the human gender most associated with witchcraft is the female one: the female body, like lunar phases and ocean tides, changes continually, often to the despair of the individual woman herself, although the rhythms also possess consistency if we let ourselves feel them.

Although this may resonate in the souls of witches it doesn’t explain the allure witches hold for so many who do not identify themselves as witches. Why the almost universal fascination with witches? Maybe because they’re fun. Yes, there are tragedies associated with witchcraft (just look at this book’s section on the Burning Times), sorry days in the history of witchcraft, but those tragedies are not witchcraft’s defining factor. So many in both the general public and the magical community are attracted to witches precisely because they are fun, and in fact that’s a very serious point about witchcraft.

During a particularly dour era in Europe, between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, witches were consistently condemned for, among other things, having fun. Among the charges typically brought against witches was that instead of attending church and being solemn and serious, they were out partying, whether with each other, the devil, with fairies or the Wild Hunt. Among the crimes associated with witchcraft was having fun at a time when fun was suspect. What exactly were those witches accused of doing at their sabbats? Feasting, dancing, making love. So-called telltale signs of witchcraft are those stereotypes that automatically brand a woman as a witch: among the most common is loud, hearty laughter—the infamous witches’ cackle.

While others mortified their flesh, the witches applied sensual unguents. While others deprived themselves, the witches indulged. It’s not surprising that on Halloween, a night when repressions are set free, so many don the garb of the witch. In a time of repression, witches danced secretly in the forest. They were accused of flying away from their husbands and responsibilities to consort with the devil, portrayed by the witch-hunters as a being of tremendous, unflagging sexuality. The devil, at least as portrayed in trial transcripts, never gets tired and never demands that you do your housework.

Cards on the table. According to the tenets of French postmodernist literature, it is impossible for an author to remove themselves completely from the content of their work. In other words, no author is capable of writing a completely unbiased work and thus should address their personal beliefs and biases up front. This is probably particularly true when writing about a topic like witchcraft that inspires such passionate emotion. Therefore, I feel I should come clean about my own perceptions of witchcraft.

I confess: ever since I was old enough to toddle, I’ve dressed up as a witch on Halloween, never as anything else, even into adulthood. Even now, I own a “Morticia” dress. Once at a masquerade party a man who knew next to nothing about me commented how comfortable I seemed in that dress, my “costume.” It’s true: as a child, had I been this articulate, I would have said that Halloween was the only night of the year that I wasn’t dressing up.

I love witches and have done ever since I can remember. I craved fairy tales as a child: the witch resonated in my soul (my version of her anyway) and I identified with her instead of fearing her as I knew, even then, was the expected response.

What is it that I loved about the witch? These are hard things to articulate because, as the Jungians write, the witch-figure touches such deep primal emotions that an exploration of what attracts or repels us about witchcraft becomes an exploration of one’s deepest self. Certainly the magical aspect of witchcraft attracted me; I was simultaneously attracted to astrology, divination, and occult philosophy. But I also think that, as a child raised to be very “good,” “well-behaved,” and “obedient” the defiant quality inherent in witches was extremely attractive. Of course, the witch can afford to be defiant (at least in folk tales) because she has the power to back up her disobedience. As a child raised amid adults possessing many psychic wounds, a child raised to have a lot of fear, the witch’s lack of fear, her knowledge of secret defenses, her willingness to have fun and break rules, as well as her ability to instill fear in others resonated deeply within me, as I think it does for so many regardless of spiritual affiliation or belief in the existence of magic, although that resonance may inspire either devotion or revulsion depending upon the individual.

If you read studies of witchcraft, especially older or more academic ones, it’s clear that it never occurs to many authors that were the witch-hunts to resume they too might be accused, condemned by their very interest in the topic. However, it is not the victim with whom they identify, hence the focus on the Witch-hunters, judges, and general public. For a variety of reasons, I have never had any doubt as to which end of the stake I’d find myself on.

I identify with the witch, always. As a child, my least favorite fairy tales were the ones where the witch is made to appear irredeemably grotesque—Hansel and Gretel, for instance. Even then, I understood this as defamation and distortion and perceived that in some way it was directed toward me. Frankly the French postmodernists are right: I can no more write neutrally about witch-hunters than I could about Nazi genocide, white supremacists or serial killers. (Although, as the French postmodernists would point out, neither can anyone else, whether they realize it or not.)

That said, I also appreciate that many who perceive the witch as evil, corrupt, and devilish do so from sincerity and religious conviction, not from foolishness and superstition. Witchcraft touches enormous chords within the human soul and not all perceive these chords as positive. Denying the reactions, making fun of those who perceive the witch as dangerous, further denies the complexity of the witch.

As a child, I loved pretty much anything featuring a witch: Wendy Witch, Bewitched, Baba Yaga, Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. The only entertainment featuring a witch that I didn’t enjoy—positively dreaded when it appeared on TV annually—was the film version of The Wizard of Oz. The winged monkeys did scare me, although the wicked witch didn’t. I found Margaret Hamilton much more frightening in her guise as Miss Gulch. What really terrified me, though was Dorothy’s family, her aunt and uncle, who would not defy Miss Gulch and save Toto, either openly and defiantly or sneakily and surreptitiously. I found their passivity terrifying. I thought Dorothy was an idiot for returning to Kansas and the people who, although she loved them, had already demonstrated their unwillingness to protect her and her interests.

My perspective may have been unique and probably reflects my experiences as a small child raised amid an immigrant community of adult survivors of concentration camps, extermination camps, labor camps, displaced persons camps and European prison camps. I was always aware of how crucial and vital it is to have people who will protect you, defend you, hide you, take risks for you and not deny you.

Thus, unlike to many scholars and witches alike, the Burning Times are not an abstraction to me. They are very real. It is not a coincidence to me that the extermination of witches occurred in the same areas of Europe that would but a few hundred years later exterminate Jews and Gypsies, my family among them. It is not a coincidence to me that the genocide associated with World War II began in the same areas of Europe where killing witches was most virulent. According to records, there were towns in Germany left without women, just as years later there would be towns left without Jews.

Except for studies specifically devoted to them, history books rarely discuss the witch-hunts except as a footnote or as an aberration, as an example of how superstitious and ignorant people used to be. It’s treated as an embarrassment to be rushed over (and of course, honest discussion of witches and witchcraft, as we’ve seen, introduces all sorts of sensitive issues); focus tends to be limited to the nature of the perpetrators (why were they so crazy about killing witches?) and of the victims: were they or were they not really witches? More sympathetic studies tend to emphasize that they were not, as if this somehow makes the killing more tragic.

Then the witch-hunts just go away. We mourn the many dead. There is little if any focus on the impact that this era, an era that lasted for centuries in some areas, not mere years or decades, had on the survivors, including those who narrowly escaped the clutches of the Witch-hunters, those whose families were tragically affected, the many who profited from the witch-hunts as well as those who watched on the sidelines. Yet I can personally guarantee you that that impact must have been tremendous, having spent my life with similar survivors.

After the witch-craze was over, presumably the survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators all went back to a normal life together, side-by-side. And the impact? Women of the Victorian age and beyond, basically until the 1960s (coinciding coincidentally with the resurgence of public witchcraft), are frequently criticized for their passive, submissive, obedient natures. I suspect that this passivity is a survival skill, learned in the wake of the witch-hunts. Even today the word “witch” used as a pejorative holds an implicit threat: behave yourself or else…

It’s fun to revel with the witches, but any honest examination of the history of witchcraft and perceptions toward witches reveals a lot more than fun and games. Among the topics concealed within the history of witchcraft are secret histories of spirituality, cultural attitudes toward women and parenthood, the evolution of modern medicine and agriculture, perceptions of race, gender, ethnicity, and the untold tales of many nations. Abortion wars didn’t begin with Roe vs. Wade; their long roots are entwined amidst the history of witchcraft, as are those of other modern issues like animal rights, eating disorders, ecology, environmental practices and more.

Studies of witchcraft are somewhat like that old legend about the blind men examining the elephant: one attempts to define the creature solely by its tail, another by its trunk, still another by its foot. Most studies of witchcraft focus on one definition or aspect of witchcraft—modern Wicca for instance, or the witch trials—satisfying some readers but inevitably leaving others searching for the witch that resonates in their hearts.

Thirteen Clues That YOU Might Be A Witch

Witches, in my book anyway, come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders. Identification via wardrobe is unreliable: anyone can dress up. However, there are some true, telltale clues. If any one or more of these statements applies to you, then you might be a witch—or, at least, have the option of heading down that road, should you so choose.

You’re fascinated by the magical arts, the occult sciences, and/or the hidden powers of Earth.

You perceive Earth as sacred, filled with mystery, worthy of awe.

You feel an affinity with wild weather, wild creatures, and Earth’s wild places.

You perceive power, positive strength, and magic, maybe even the divine, in women.

You can maintain a relationship with an individual of another species, such as a bird or an animal. (Whether you define your opposing gender as another species is up to you.)

By nature, you’re nocturnal.

Darkness doesn’t scare you—not consistently anyway.

You have an independent nature; you like to make your own rules and you value your privacy and autonomy.

You possess curiosity and a thirst for knowledge.

Ancient stories (myths, legends, fairy tales) enthrall you.

You think the universe might hold undiscovered mysteries. Not everything can be explained by science; not everything can be controlled by people.

The mysteries of birth and death fascinate you.

You consider yourself a witch, or sometimes suspect that you are one, or think you might like to be one.

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft contains many visions and versions of witchcraft. The word “witch” historically has been used to encompass wise women, priestesses, sorcerers, wizards, magicians, healers, conjurers, shamans, and powerful women, as well as archetypal figures of fantasy. I haven’t deliberately excluded any of them. The focus is mainly on so-called “operative witchcraft”—witchcraft revolving around magical practice, witchcraft as an international community of magical practitioners, dedicated to varying traditions but all ultimately descended from and rooted in that first ancient shamanic tradition. Witchcraft as religion or spiritual tradition is incorporated into this larger vision.

Witchcraft has many faces: alluringly beautiful enchantresses but also hags, crones, queens, wizards, and even a saint. (No, not Joan of Arc, whose jailors were never able to make a witchcraft accusation stick, although they tried hard.) Within these pages you’ll discover a host of famous and infamous witches, an examination of the Burning Times, and a celebration of the sacred witch, the witch worshipped as goddess.

I hope that you will find the witch who resonates in your heart in these pages, or at least discover some clues to help you track her down. Can I offer one single definition of the witch guaranteed to satisfy every reader? No. No one can. The witch refuses to be pinned down and defined by mere words, of which she is the magical master. No one owns her. She is independent, defiant, and resists narrow definition.

So finally, what do I tell that person who wants to know if I’m a witch? Frankly, way too much time has been spent over the ages worrying about whether other people are witches. It seems inevitably to lead to trouble. The more important question is: Are you a witch?


One of the first things any magical practitioner must learn is to pay serious attention to the critical power of words. Because so much of the confusion and misunderstanding regarding witchcraft derives from linguistic sources, it’s important, for purposes of clarity, to be sure that we’re all on the same page.

Even a cursory glance through this encyclopedia’s HALL OF FAME demonstrates that powerful magical practitioners come in both male and female varieties. However, so that I don’t have to keep saying “he or she,” and also because of the powerful associations between witchcraft and women—and especially because so many of the victims of witch-hunting were and remain female—unless specific reference is made to male practitioners, I’ve used female pronouns to refer to witches in general. No disrespect intended toward the many wonderful male workers of magic, powerful male witches, throughout history.

(On behalf of the astrologers in our midst, wherever possible I have also included specific dates, especially birth and death days.)

For purposes of clarity and to avoid confusion, within these pages the following words are defined as follows:

Wicca: a narrow definition—the modern religion deriving from the pre-Christian spiritual traditions of the British Isles, what some would call Gardnerian Wicca; Margaret Murray’s “ritual witchcraft.” Spelled with a capital “W”

Wicca, wicce: the Anglo-Saxon root words, masculine and feminine respectively, from which the modern words Wicca, witchcraft, witch, wit, wise, and wisdom may derive. Spelled with a lower-case “w”

Wiccan: a narrow definition: one who follows the path of Wicca; a practitioner of Margaret Murray’s “ritual witchcraft.” Spelled with a capital “W”

Witch: a broad definition: a practitioner of witchcraft as defined below; also someone perceived and identified as a “witch.” Spelled with a lower-case “w”

Witchcraft: a broad definition: the magical arts, encompassing shamanism and traditional healing; Margaret Murray’s “operative witchcraft.” Spelled with a lower-case “w”

Elements of Witchcraft

I wasn’t being entirely sarcastic about my perpetually unruly hair being grounds for suspicion of witchcraft. J.K. Rowling’s depiction of Harry Potter’s messy, defiant hair isn’t mere description and character development but a deep clue to his identity, based on centuries of tradition.

A fairly universal stereotype of the witch portrays her with unruly hair; perhaps a visual declaration that she is a person who will not be ruled. In fact, in Jewish and Slavic folklore, among others, to describe a woman as having “disheveled hair” is the telltale instant giveaway that she is some kind of witch, whether human, demonic or divine.

Hair also figures prominently in the myth of Sedna, Inuit ruler of the seas. Sedna sits on the ocean floor, her chief companion her familiar dog. (Visualize something like an Alaskan malamute.) She controls the balance between the sea creatures, who wish to live, and the people ashore, who wish to live, too, and thus must hunt, catch, and eat those sea creatures. Sedna, like the sea, is volatile and moody: she manifests anger and depression by withholding the ocean’s bounty.

When food becomes scarce, the only way to restore balance is to soothe, comfort, and appease Sedna. An intrepid shaman must soul-journey to Sedna’s watery abode, approach her and calmly, gently, comb out the painful knots and tangles from her long, thick matted hair. Only when this is accomplished will Sedna’s anger, frustration, and deadly agitation pass.

Witchcraft, shamanism (more about this soon), magic, conjuring, herbalism, “traditional” healing, “traditional” spirituality, religion: like Sedna’s locks these may all be too deeply entangled to ever completely separate. However, attempts to comb them out will hopefully soothe agitation and frustration, and will definitely reveal secrets and release hidden treasures.

Let’s examine the primal roots of witchcraft and the various historical elements that have shaped witchcraft and influenced perceptions of it.

The Roots of Witchcraft: The Magical World

How far back do we have to go to find that primal witch? Well, how far back can we get? Because however far we can go, we will discover magical practices waiting for us.

Recognition of magic power and the accompanying urge to manipulate it exists from earliest creation. Folklorist and practitioner of magic Zora Neale Hurston identified God as the original hoodoo doctor, because he spoke the world into creation with a series of magical words. That’s a concept that would have been familiar to the ancient Egyptians. Among their many creation stories is one where Ptah the craftsman god, the original mason, also brings the world into existence using magic words. Other creation stories from all over Earth posit a similar magical creation. The world and all inhabitants, including people, are created via incantation, song (charm), visualization, spell-casting or image-magic: figures molded from Earth, life magically breathed into them.

Other creation stories make the magical connection very explicit. In another Egyptian creation tale, the Creator, having contemplated creation, realizes that all will not be well and that people are potentially in for a lot of grief, heartache, and trouble. Feeling remorseful, the Creator quickly invents magic power (heka, to the ancient Egyptians) for people to use to ward off the harsh blows of fate. Magic is thus a crucial necessity of divine origin.

Another creation myth is both explicit about primordial witchcraft and ambivalent toward it. The Zuni are an indigenous nation of the North American south-west; according to their cosmology, shortly after Earth was populated, a sacred pair, male and female, commonly identified in English translation as “witches,” emerge bearing gifts. While traveling around, examining Earth, this pair, these witches, meet some young women and ask them who they are. The girls say they are Corn Maidens but they have a problem: corn doesn’t exist yet.

The witches immediately remedy the situation, distributing seven varieties of corn as well as squash and melon seeds, the staple diet of the indigenous farmers of the American south-west. This gift stimulates the Corn Maidens to form a pair of lines facing the sun and begin a dance in tribute: the birth of religion and agriculture, with full approval from the witches. This is a nice witch story. The witches, however, also bear another gift: death. They insist death is necessary to prevent Earth from becoming overcrowded. People, however, are horrified and behold witches, responsible for life-saving sustenance and the introduction of death, with suspicion ever after. It is an early acknowledgement of ambivalence toward witchcraft: the power to heal and preserve may also be wielded to harm and destroy.

You don’t hold any stock with mythology and ancient creation tales? That’s OK; let’s take a look at what the archeologists and anthropologists have to say. Plenty of physical evidence documents the primordial origins of witchcraft and magical perspective.

Physical Evidence of Magical Thought

Much of what we know of Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age) cultures derives from excavations of funerary sites. Survivors lovingly cared for their dead compatriots, preparing them, sometimes painstakingly, sometimes at great expense, for whatever was perceived as lying ahead. They cleansed and groomed the bodies, dressed them, ornamented them with flowers, beads, seashells, and amulets. They left grave goods: whatever was needed for pleasure, nourishment, and safety in the next realm as well as for the journey there. Sometimes payment and/or guides for that journey were magically provided too, as well as guardians to protect whatever was understood to be left behind.

“Life” to these ancient people, clearly didn’t just terminate with death, as if the plug being pulled, everything was over. They had a broader, magical perspective of what constitutes “life” that didn’t end with the last heartbeat or breath. Instead one existence passed into another, one road leading from one realm into another. The modern phenomenon known as the one-way street, however, had yet to be invented. Had it been, there would be far less discussion of shamanism today and maybe none of necromancy. All roads could be accessed from both directions. Mysteries of death and what comes after remain integral to witchcraft.

The mysteries of death were not our ancestors’ only concerns, however; neither are they the main focus of witchcraft. Mysteries of birth and life were equally important—the flip side of the coin.

In 1908, a small statuette depicting a round, rotund female was discovered by the archeologist Josef Szombathy near Willendorf, Austria. The most famous of countless similar statuettes she was nicknamed the “Venus of Willendorf” and is now in Vienna’s natural history museum.

Her nickname was meant ironically. To modern ears, the name “Venus” epitomizes female beauty and grace, which currently almost inevitably means thin, smooth, firm, and youthful. The Willendorf Venus amused the archeologists who discovered her. Like many other statuettes of her era, she is fat and corpulent, displaying rolls of flesh and large, sagging breasts. She is not a figure of humor, however, nor was she intended to be grotesque. She is very carefully crafted. Her hair is beautifully coiffed in seven concentric rings—seven apparently already recognized as a magical number. She is an object of wonder.

How long ago was the Venus of Willendorf crafted? Whose eyes should we attempt to see her through? As the technology of establishing chronology improves, her age has been revised several times, consistently backwards. She was originally thought to date from 15,000 to 10,000 BCE, but the date now suggested is from 24,000 to 22,000 BCE, quite a few years ago. Today, in this era of super-sized meals and sedentary occupations, the Venus of Willendorf’s figure is far from unique. People battle to avoid her shape, resorting to surgery and all sorts of drastic diets. Imagine, however the hard-scrabble existence of some 20,000 years ago. Through the eyes of those days, the Venus of Willendorf must have been regal, queenly, self-contained, divine. She is the image of woman as the source of life, plenty, peace, fertility, and prosperity. Today’s ideal woman is squeezed into as little physical space as humanly possible. Not the Venus of Willendorf. She’s expansive, comfortable, and takes up as much space as she needs.

The Venus of Willendorf is but the most renowned of countless other ancient surviving images of the sacred female. Not all share her figure; some are slender. Almost uniformly, however, those parts of the human anatomy that are uniquely female (breasts, vulva, pregnant belly) are emphasized and frequently exaggerated. Whoever created these images (and they are literally countless and crafted over millennia) made sure that no one could ignore or overlook the fact that they are resolutely, profoundly female.

What we can see is that the people who created and venerated these images were not afraid or repulsed by large women, powerful women, or sexual women. Some of these images seem remote. Some may be wearing masks, others lack facial features altogether, yet virtually all have vaginas, accentuated so that you can’t miss them. Some cradle their breasts, offering them to viewers the way a nursing mother does with her child. Some point knowingly to genitals and swollen bellies. They are simultaneously maternal and sexual. Maternity and dynamic female sexuality were obviously not mutually exclusive to the eyes that carved and beheld these figures. Many are very beautiful even by modern conventional standards, with loving, mysterious faces. What is very clear is that our ancient ancestors perceived profound power and magic in the female form. In fact, many anthropologists and scholars of religion believe that the oldest cosmologies start with a mother. In other words, the very first god was a mother.

And of course, who is more god-like than a mother? It is difficult to remember in these days of modern conveniences like infant formula, hospitals, and nannies but once upon a time survival, happiness, and health depended entirely upon one’s mother. If your mother was powerful, devoted, healthy, and focused on your well-being your future seemed assured. If your mother was vulnerable, unable or unwilling to care for you for any reason, your future was tenuous indeed.

Everyone’s individual mother might be their own private goddess, but actual goddesses served as mothers of communities, tribes, and nations. Many of these simultaneously wonderful and terrible goddesses survive, as for instance India’s Kali and Russia’s Baba Yaga. Kali Mata (Mother Kali) remains an actively venerated Hindu goddess; her vast complexities and contradictions celebrated and wondered upon. By contrast Baba (Grandma) Yaga was banished to the forest and marginalized as a witch.

Loads of wonderful images of the divine female, together with analyses, may be found in Buffie Johnson’s Lady of the Beasts (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), as well as in the many works of archeologist and historian Marija Gimbutas.

The image of the sacred female doesn’t stand alone. Among the several dancing figures painted in the cave of Les Trois Frères in Ariège, France is one nicknamed the “Dancing Sorcerer.” Dating from approximately 10,000 BCE, this two-and-a-half-foot high figure is a composite of many creatures. He possesses the antlers and torso of a stag and a wolf’s tail. Interpreters argue as to whether his paws and phallus belong to a bear or a lion. The beard and dancing legs definitely belong to a man and there is something essentially human about the entire dancing figure. Many speculate that what we see depicted is a costumed, masked man.

This horned figure may be a dancing shaman or sorcerer, or both. He may be the “Master of the Beasts.” He may be the ancestor of one or more of the wide variety of horned male deities: Cernunos, Herne, Faunus, or Pan, or he may be an early depiction of any or all of them. He will emerge from his hidden cave to haunt us during the Witch-hunts. (See HORNED ONE.)

Among the most historically revealing archeological excavations is that of the city of Çatal Hüyük, located in what is now modern Turkey. The city was rebuilt many times over thousands of years. There are 12 layers on the site; the age of the oldest has not yet been reliably determined but the most recent is from c. 5600 BCE. The entire area was forsaken in approximately 4900 BCE for reasons yet unknown. This was a large city; at its height it’s believed to have supported 6,000 people (a huge population at that time), and it contained many shrines and temples. Among unearthed artifacts are those which are immediately recognizable and meaningful to modern witches and/or goddess devotees: bull’s horns all over the place, images of birthing women strategically placed near these horns, plus a statue of a massive, enthroned woman, seated between a pair of lions or leopards (animals which both once inhabited Europe). The image is recognizable as that of the Magna Mater, the Mountain Mother, the Great Goddess Kybele, who, according to one version of her sacred myth, is a deified witch. (See DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; Kybele.)


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Charles Darwin’s then-revolutionary theory of evolution was also applied to the social sciences: so-called social Darwinism. Although this has since fallen from fashion, at one time common anthropological wisdom was firmly convinced that human civilizations preceded orderly through Darwinian stages, with magical thought as the first, earliest stage. Some cultures advanced while others stopped, arrested at that early stage. Magical perspective, the witches’ viewpoint, equaled primitive thought, with “primitive” implying something very negative, the antithesis of “civilization.”

Because contemporary magical thinkers were also perceived as primitive, backwards, and foolish, even when Western and well-educated, there was no thought of consulting with them when excavating sites or examining magical images. (This is changing; archeologists at Çatal Hüyük now engage in discussion with modern goddess devotees.) Instead attempts were made to define magical thinking from an outsider’s point of view, an outsider who was proud of his distance from that perspective.

The word “animism” was coined by the English anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor (2 October 1832–2 January 1917), generally acknowledged as the “father of anthropology.” Tylor gave this name to what was perceived as the earliest phase of magical and religious thinking, deriving it from the Greek “anima” meaning “soul.” According to Tylor, prehistoric humans believed that every person, creature, and object—everything!—had a soul, was animated, and hence the name animism. That Sir Tylor did not identify or particularly empathize with the human subjects of his research is apparent by the words he chose to describe them: “savages” and “rude races.” (No need to pick on Tylor, this was fairly standard language for anthropologists and social scientists of his time and later.)

Animism was perceived as a backward, primitive, uncivilized, unenlightened belief: the lowest rung on the ladder to civilization. That said, if one can cut through the thicket of value judgments, Tylor came very close to defining what might be understood as magical perception: the vision of the world that makes shamanism, witchcraft, and magical practices possible and desirable.

It is an ecstatic vision. In this vision, everything is alive, continually interacts and can potentially communicate, if it so chooses, if it can be so compelled and, most crucially, if you can understand. There is no such thing as an inanimate object. Because you cannot hear or understand them doesn’t mean that rocks, wind, trees, and objects are not communicating or cannot communicate. The shaman can hear, the shaman can understand and, maybe most importantly, the shaman can hold up her end in a dialogue.

The shaman, sorcerer or witch (and whether at this stage of the game there is any difference is subject largely to linguistics) is the person who desires this knowledge and/or shows personal aptitude for this type of communication. This aptitude is invaluable and may have been crucial to the survival, success, and proliferation of the human species. Creation stories tend to end with that magical act of creation. What happened next? Quite often, as in that Zuni tale, the witches show up bearing life-saving knowledge and skill.

Imagine the earliest people on Earth, our most remote ancestors, encountering new plants, strange animals, and substances never before seen. hey have no pre-existing scientific context.

Science posits a lengthy trial-and-error period. Conventional shamanic wisdom suggests that those animated plants, animals, and substances identified themselves and explained their gifts and dangers in a manner comprehensible to the shaman, who served as their medium to the greater human community. Animals, humans’ elder siblings, taught us healing, hunting, and basic living skills. This is not ancient history. This type of shamanism still exists, although it is as endangered as the rainforests in which it is now largely centered.

Shamanic Vision

According to many traditional understandings, there is no such thing as one monolithic world; that perception displays limited vision. Instead, the mundane world we live in, the world we experience only through our five senses, is but one among various realms or planes of existence. Although there may also be others, international conventional shamanic wisdom suggests that the following realms exist:

Earth: the tangible realm of mortal people and creatures

Spirit World: the realm of deities and spiritual beings—angels, fairies, djinn, and so forth

Dreamland: experiences in dreams really happen; just on a different plane of existence

Realm of the Dead: the after-life

These realms are not linear; instead they are simultaneous, parallel. They interconnect. You can communicate across realms; you can travel between them. Spirits go back and forth effortlessly; ghosts sometimes get stuck in the wrong realm and need a shaman to point them in the right direction, maybe giving them a little shove in the process.

Boundaries exist between these different realms, although precisely how permeable those boundaries are or aren’t varies and is dependent on a number of factors, not least being something as simple as time of year. (Thus the time period known as Halloween/Samhain/El Dia de Los Muertos is acknowledged as the time when those borders are particularly permeable, from all directions.) There are portals of entry between realms, if you can find them, if you can survive them, if you have the skill and knowledge to navigate your return. This is the soul-journey of the expert shaman.

Greek and Roman myths tell of Odysseus’ and Aeneas’ journeys to Hades. Orpheus journeys to Hades attempting to escort his beloved Eurydice back from the realm of the dead. In Norse mythology, emissaries are sent to Hel to see whether beloved, deceased Balder could be released. Because these “journeys” are often understood only literally, as if one ventures to the Realm of the Dead in the exact same way one travels to Disneyland, they are too frequently understood as “mythic” only in the sense of being fictional.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of novels envisions another way of accessing portals between realms via the use of a magical tool, the subtle knife.

Shamanic functions include:

Communication with other realms, including those of the spirits and the deceased

Soul retrieval and other forms of healing

Location of lost or stolen items, in particular buried treasure

Despite jokes otherwise, shamanism may be the real first profession. (As for the alternative, many sacred prostitutes simultaneously served as shamans, not passive figures but dynamic ones, especially those engaged in ritual possession, channeling their goddess.) The shaman is a unique specialist although there are cultures that support large multi-person shamanic societies—with “support” frequently being the key word. Typically a community provides for a shaman’s needs in exchange for shamanic services, in particular in hunting/gathering or farming communities.

Sounds like a good deal? Well, yes and no. Shamanism isn’t easy; the experiences can be frightening, unpleasant, and dangerous, acquiring the skills painful, and simultaneously traumatic and exhilarating: typically the pivotal initiation experience is described as a spiritual “death.” Some part of the spiritual anatomy, although not the physical body, dies—ripped apart or butchered by spirits, frequently cooked up in a cauldron, consumed by the spirits and then finally, hopefully, if one passes all tests, put back together (re-membered) and resurrected. The shaman is able to journey into the after-life because she has “died” and returned. She is a liminal figure who exists in several realms simultaneously.

Because it’s dangerous, because there may be a lengthy apprenticeship (despite modern advertising, one cannot become a shaman over a weekend, although certainly skills can be taught), and because skill comes from experience, the full-fledged shaman is often an older person, and very frequently a woman for a variety of reasons. (In some areas, China or Northern Europe for instance, shamanism was exclusively a female preserve for a very long time.)

Hard as it may be to believe today, once upon a time in many places, menopausal women were regarded with a reverence verging on awe; their wise blood retained, its power increased exponentially within

If a woman survived child-bearing, she was also more likely to survive into old age, a phenomenon that may still be witnessed if you calculate the percentage of women to men in virtually every retirement community

On the other hand, a woman with no children to provide for her old age might have a strong incentive to develop psychic skills in order to remain a valued, cared-for member of society

Although some enlist, many more are drafted. Very frequently the individual has little choice in the matter. The spirits choose you, their call manifesting through dreams, visions (not necessarily your own), illness, bad luck, and/or animal attack. Traditionally, in some places, surviving bear, snake, or jaguar attacks was interpreted as a shamanic call.

Sometimes the shaman’s refusal to heed the call affects a whole community adversely: bad luck spreads around, as in the biblical tale of Jonah. (Read it again. He didn’t just accidentally end up in that whale’s belly; there was a reason Jonah found himself lost in the depths of the sea.) If the cause of misfortune is traced back to her recalcitrance, the community may insist that the shaman assume her role or risk ostracism, banishment, or worse—being sacrificed to appease the spirits.

On the other hand, if shamanic aptitude or a calling is recognized, a community may nurture the individual so that she may acquire her skills, providing her with the best material goods, and sometimes tolerating bad, erratic, unpredictable behavior because a powerful, consistently effective shaman is invaluable. The shaman is responsible for the community’s well-being and survival, its life and death. Why? Because shamanic services were perceived as crucial and integral to a wide variety of dangerous pursuits, including:

Childbirth, spiritual initiations, healing, and funerals: dangerous on the spiritual plane because of intense contact with other realms. On the physical plane, risk of physical contamination (infection) frequently exists. (Shamanically-speaking, these planes and dangers are not distinct.)

Hunting: eating meat involves killing a fellow creature, whose spirit guardians must be appeased to avoid disaster and maintain spiritual balance

Agriculture: digging holes or otherwise rooting around in Earth may be understood as rape if Earth hasn’t expressly granted permission, which perhaps only the shaman can hear or interpret. Harvest may be understood as murder, as in “John Barleycorn must die.” Plants are fellow living creatures, possessing their own spirit guardians who must be propitiated and appeased to maintain spiritual balance

There is no need to accuse or ask whether someone is a shaman. Her results speak for themselves. If things consistently aren’t going well, a more successful shaman will be found. It’s a little bit like traditional Chinese medicine, where a physician is desirable and respected only provided her patients remain healthy.

The shaman provides a needed service that, although fraught with spiritual danger, is expected to be reliable and dependable. The shaman must perform functions as needed: like a modern physician, she may be “on call” at all times, 24/7. The popular vision of shamanism as the role primitive societies invented for those with seizure disorders or the mentally unbalanced is incorrect, simplistic, and based on the notion that all other realms and spirits are “made up,” because if they don’t exist then, of course, the shaman’s journey is pure fantasy or fraud.

Shamanism is performed in various ways, through soul-journeying (going to the spirits), or through ritual possession (having them come to you.) The shaman summons spirits and ghosts and sends them packing—exorcism—as individual need arises. Her work may be enhanced by music, especially drums, chants, singing, dance, or silence. The entranced shaman may appear to be asleep or in a coma or even dead. For ancient people lacking scientific context, with no hospital monitoring equipment to measure life, the shaman who appears dead is dead, at least temporarily. She is a figure of tremendous power.

The shaman may develop profound individual ties with animals, plants, spirits, or other allies. The ecstatic component of shamanism cannot be emphasized enough; the very word “ecstasy” derives from a Greek shamanic term “existanai” (“to put out of place” as in a soul out of body). At best, shamanism is an ecstatic, transcendent, rapturous experience, for the individual shaman and also for the community whom she leads in shamanic ritual. This intense, dynamic rapture can be experienced and witnessed through ecstatic music and dance, the best sex, ritual possession, some forms of divination, or glossolalia (speaking in tongues), all of which may be components of shamanism.

Let’s be honest: the shaman can make people nervous, some people anyway, past as well as present. She knows a lot of stuff that you don’t. She knows stuff you don’t even know that you don’t know. Through soul-journeying and clairvoyance, she may know stuff about you that you would prefer not be known.

The shaman is very likely also to be a solitary person, at least some of the time. The soul-journey, the psychic journey is an intensely private, individual experience. The shaman talks with animals; the shaman talks with dead people; the shaman talks with ghosts and spirits who scare other people (and not every spirit or ghost, ancestral or otherwise, is pleasant, attractive, and nice); the shaman may even be able to assume the form of animals. Imagine today, when someone is observed muttering intensely to themselves, should a cell-phone or other similar modern reassurance that all is well not be immediately apparent, most of us will automatically give the mutterer a wide berth. Some shamans mutter all the time. (A Slavic euphemism for witch is “mutterer.”) Are they talking to their spirit allies, your long-dead ex-husband, or some other shaman across town who can magically hear them? Or maybe they’re just nuts. (Among the many telltale stereotypes resulting in an accusation of witchcraft during the Burning Times was being observed muttering to yourself, particularly if you were a ragged, old beggar-woman.)

What if the shaman yields to temptation and puts her powers to personal, selfish use? What if, in a time of conflicting interests, the shaman is bribed to favor one party or another?

New Age people are often dismayed to hear those from traditional cultures speak negatively of witchcraft and witches. Tolerance of witches is expected from these seemingly magic-tolerant societies. Of course, cultures that incorporate magical practices have also been known to burn witches. In these cases, “witch” is often understood to mean a shaman gone bad, a breach of a sacred trust.

The shaman doesn’t have to become corrupt to stop working full-time for the community. Eventually some suffer burn-out, at least temporarily, too tired or psychically drained. Maybe, for one reason or another, the spirits stop talking to you. Some shamans, perhaps following bad experiences (the primordial “bad trip”), failure, emotional exhaustion, psychic torpor, or perhaps just as directed by the spirits, might retreat into privacy—a cave, a hut in the forest, a little home on a mountain top or in a swamp—to recuperate, replenish their energy and live a private, magical life. People would know the shaman was there, this person in the wilds. She might be frightening, they might leave her alone most of the time, warn their children not to bother her—who knows what she could do if provoked?—but in a moment of desperation, when a magical solution seems like the only option, particularly when a private secret magical solution is required, one would know exactly where to go to plead or pay for assistance.

Among those occupations claiming descent from the primal shaman:

Witches, wizards, practitioners of magic

Conjurers, illusionists, purveyors of tricks, ventriloquists, sleight-of-hand artists

Diviners, readers, seers, fortune-tellers

Herbalists and healers of all persuasions, including modern physicians

Musicians, actors, dancers, puppeteers

The Fruitful Earth: “The Fertility Cult”

Anthropological discussions of witchcraft’s origins almost inevitably refer to witchcraft as deriving from ancient “fertility cults.” Little if any explanation is ever given as to exactly what constitutes a fertility cult, as if the meaning of the term should be self-evident. To a very large extent this is because old-school anthropologists—and society in general—were uncomfortable with explicit discussion of sexuality until recent decades (and not always even now).

The use of the word “cult” is the tip-off that we are outsiders looking in. Cult is a word used by outsiders to describe a phenomenon of which they are not part and toward which they bear either ambivalence or disapproval. “Cult” in modern usage carries a negative connotation: we have religion, strange other people have cults. At best, “fertility cult” has an archaic ring evoking Orientalist images of sacred prostitution. At worst, “cult” carries sinister overtones: people must be rescued from “cults,” deprogrammed from the brainwashing kind.

Those old-school anthropologists may have been looking with outsiders’ eyes but they weren’t completely off-base or wrong: witchcraft, from its primal roots to this year’s Halloween paraphernalia, demonstrates a profound preoccupation with fertility, even if it isn’t always blatant or easily recognized. So, in plain English, what is this fertility cult?

Now, first, stop rolling your eyes. Since the emergence of the women’s rights movement, terms like “fertility cult” and the traditional preoccupation with maternity have fallen into disrepute and for good reason. Over the centuries reverence for women’s reproductive abilities evolved into a trap with women only valued for potential fertility, like some prized chicken or cow.

Although obviously reproduction is crucial to survival as a species, it may not have been the literal output, the end-results, that were worshipped but instead a perception of women’s fertility power, a female equivalent of something similar to machismo, for which (significantly) no word or name now exists—with the exception perhaps of certain understandings of “witch.” Machismo, perceived as intense male virility, almost a hyper-masculinity, is a perceived power potentially projected by men regardless of whether they are engaged in sexual activity at that moment. The dynamic power, the capacity, is always there, regardless of whether it’s used.

Likewise, women may have been understood to radiate fertility-power, for lack of a better name, whether or not they were actively engaged in reproduction. This is based on the very ancient use of contraception and abortion in areas that especially venerated sexy fertility goddesses, as well as on the image of specific female spirits of fertility, like Artemis, who emphatically and deliberately lack children. The Artemisia family of plants, which are intimately identified with witchcraft, were gifts from Artemis to humans, hence their name. They were used in ancient times as menstrual regulators: historically they have been used for either encouraging or terminating pregnancy.

To understand the ancient obsession with fertility one has to appreciate just how hard life was once upon a time. We in the modern industrialized world are buffered from so much of life’s harshness. Human remains suggest that the average Paleolithic lifespan was only about 33 years. Death was a constant presence. Hunger, thirst, illness, the dangers of a harsh environment—remaining alive was not a passive act. Death, hunger, sterility must be consciously, vigilantly, consistently warded off.

The emphasis on fertility and rebirth that one sees in the most ancient human artwork and spiritual artifacts is an act of sheer defiance. It expresses the determination to survive, to bear children and see them survive, and to ecstatically celebrate and experience every possible moment of joy wrenched from potentially bitter experience: this is the birth of spirituality, religion, and witchcraft.

At its most primal and ancient, the fertility cult, for lack of anything better to call it, acknowledges that life is precious, sacred, potentially full of joy but all too often tenuous and fraught with danger. Earth is a wonderful place; there is no better place to be but life is short and continually threatened. Life and the forces that renew and regenerate it are sacred but must be constantly, carefully, enhanced, empowered, and preserved. To remain alive, to bring forth new life, one cannot be passive. Life emerges from a balancing act between male and female forces. The world can be divided into complementary energies. There are forces that bring forth life (yin/female), there are forces that stimulate that process (yang/male). There are forces that generate fertility, understood as abundance of all kinds, as well as those that serve as obstacles and challenges.

When these forces are harmoniously balanced, life is preserved and continues to be generated. Times are good and living is comparatively easy. Earth, left alone, possesses her own balancing act but if one, whether individual or community, possesses a personal agenda with specific desired results, whether personal fertility, animal husbandry, hunting or agriculture, then the balancing act becomes more precarious. Those scales must be tipped in your favor.

The Chinese yin-yang pictogram provides a visual depiction for this philosophy. Black yin and white yang are nestled beside each other; each contains a spark of the other’s essence. They are not mutually exclusive forces but require each other to exist. They do not war with each other. Their opposition may be understood as the opposing force that permits a vaulted ceiling to exist. Each needs the other: there is no perception of black without white, no perception of cold without knowledge of heat. Disharmony arises when there is imbalance between forces, when one side threatens to overwhelm the other.

Earth’s complementary energies may be divided into affinities or affiliations. Thus women are affiliated with darkness, the moon, water, and certain kinds of magic powers. All are connected and share an essence:

If the moon’s phases are consistent and reliable, all is well.

If a woman’s phases are consistent and reliable, all is well

If a woman’s phases are inconsistent or unreliable, they can be realigned by strengthening her affinity with the moon, the tides, and other lunar forces

Women are sacred and powerful because they can give life, because their bodies reflect the lunar phases, because the emergence of womanhood and fertility is announced by the rhythmic shedding of magical blood (and in many tribal societies, just as in many offices or wherever women live closely together, menstruation becomes synchronized and frequently linked to a specific moon phase).

Women are sacred and powerful because they can magically provide nourishment from their own body in a god-like manner. Every woman thus is potentially a goddess; it is the image of the female divine brought down to life. Sparks of sacred life exist in every woman. It is no wonder that the most ancient depictions of divinity are modeled after females, whether human, animal, bird or fish.

So is this it? The fertility cult as a celebration of women? Yes and no.

Men are magic, too. It doesn’t matter how magical and god-like the female is, there’s no reproduction without men, as is clear from tales of the machinations that Amazons or other female-only societies go through in order to conceive. It couldn’t be clearer than in the ancient tale of Isis, Mistress of Magic, who has enough power to stop the sun in the sky but can’t conceive the child she is destined to bear without sexual intercourse. Isis can resurrect her dead husband long enough for a quickie, she can charm up a working gold penis because the original went missing during the resurrection process, but with all that power she is unable to conceive a child without sperm.

It doesn’t matter how fertile Earth is, if it doesn’t rain or if irrigation isn’t otherwise provided, there will be no harvest. No rain, no growth. No semen, no pregnancy. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand these simple facts.

Anthropologists debate as to whether the ancients understood the male role in reproduction. Although their understanding was certainly not as technical or analytical as the modern understanding of pregnancy and conception, based on a slew of ancient virile storm gods (Zeus, Baal, Thor, Chango) clearly some connection was made; some appreciation that men, too, are integral to conception.

Women bear but men activate, the process. Sometimes the deity manifests in the form of a dancing shamanic man (Dionysus, Shiva, Bes), while in other cases he is a primordial source of fertility, the personified irrepressible procreative urge (Ogun, Faunus, and countless horned male spirits).

Other connections were made as well. Symbols radiate power. Basic magical fertility theory involves manipulation of various powers to generate a constant, steady, healthy, beneficial flow of fertility, not just of human beings but all living interconnected beings. The ultimate symbol, sacred short-hand transcending language, is the union of human genitalia. Each depicted separately radiates a magical, protective force. Put together they magically generate life.

Images of the human genitalia rank among the oldest religious artifacts; some images still linger on the outskirts of modern religious symbolism. Often the genitals are divorced from the rest of the body and venerated independently, such as Himalayan lingams and yonis. Sometimes the whole package is left intact, as with ithyphallic statues of gods. (In plain English, this means statues depicting deities with erect, prominent, sometimes really big penises.) You don’t have to go back thousands of years; this imagery is recent too, as in the suppressed sacred genital imagery of traditional Japanese culture or that modern tourist souvenir, the Thai penis amulet.

Sometimes the imagery is more abstract, often geometric. Triangles are utilized to demonstrate the directions of genitals: upward for the male, downward for the female. The hexagram, the six-pointed Star of David, depicts their merger, the union of fire and water. The protective image of the triangle is ubiquitous in what belly-dancers call “tribal style.” You’ll see it on countless Oriental rugs and Middle Eastern amulets. It is also ubiquitous in the Western witch’s wardrobe: she is rarely shown without her peaked, triangular hat.

Representations of this sacred merger of male and female may be observed elsewhere:

The pestle in the mortar

The fire in the hearth

The stick in the broom

The broomstick between the legs

The sword in its scabbard

The foot in the shoe (think about the prominence of shoes in wedding rituals)

Other fertility motifs may be harder for the modern eye to catch, mainly because our industrialized landscape is so vastly different from those of our ancestors who, as the cliché goes, lived much closer to nature. The most prominent of these are cattle horns, which in form symbolically unite male and female generative forces. The phallic connection may seem obvious, but cattle horns are also potently linked to female generative power. Think of all those ancient cow goddesses: Hathor, Isis, Io. The very continent of Europe is named in honor of Europa who rode a bull across the sea and who is virtually always depicted holding onto one horn.

What ancient eyes were exposed to that we are missing, in addition to the ubiquitous presence of cattle, was the inside of the human body, viewed without any modern scientific context. When a body was opened up (whether because of murder, funeral or sacrificial procedure, Caesarian section, curiosity, or exploration), the resemblance of the female reproductive organs, from the ovaries, moving down the fallopian tubes into the vaginal canal, to a bull’s skull with horns was noted. The connection is very explicitly portrayed in relief on Çatal Hüyük shrine walls. Images of the parturient (birthing) goddess are placed above bulls’ skulls with enormous horns, or sometimes over just the horns alone. The female figure’s belly may be marked with a circle, emphasizing the promise that lies within. Luckily, that promise is easily, consistently, observed in the horns and so it isn’t necessary to look inside the body. Instead that promise, that symbol, may be observed on every sacred cow.

You can see those horns, that promise of generative power, in the sky too, depending upon the phase of the moon. The Egyptian goddesses Hathor and Isis are often depicted as beautiful, elegant, generous women wearing horned headdresses with a full moon held between the points. The horns within the female body are connected through essence and affinity with lunar horns in the sky, the cow’s horns on Earth and the horns of powerful female deities.

Horns on a male deity invariably indicate that he’s virile, sexually insatiable, always ready, willing and able, hot, horny. Horns on amulets, like those found amongst traditional Italian amulets, protect and generate male reproductive ability. They also ward off the Evil Eye, understood as the antithesis of fertility.

The image of the sacred cow is almost as universal as witchcraft. It’s found in ancient statuary and in cave paintings. The sacred cow survives in modern India but once upon a time it was also common in Egypt, Greece, Ireland, Scandinavia, the Middle East and throughout Africa, not to mention the traditional Native American veneration of the buffalo, a form of wild cattle. This veneration hides in the Bible too: not only in the obvious golden calf, believed to represent Hathor or her son, but also in Leah, the only innately fertile biblical matriarch, whose name may be translated as “wild cow.” Even today describing a woman as “cow-eyed,” like the goddess Hera, is still considered a great compliment in Greece, a testament to female beauty, although it doesn’t translate well into English.

It isn’t the cow or bull that is worshipped in such fertility cults—it’s the potential and promise that they so potently represent, symbolize, and epitomize that is viewed with such veneration. The fertility cult isn’t limited to awe for cattle either. Other animals were recognized as radiating profound fertility power too:

Those perceived as resembling human reproductive organs (hedgehogs, snakes, weasels)

Those perceived as being especially prolific (cats, rabbits, frogs, toads)

Those able to reproduce in the most challenging environments (snakes again, scorpions)

All of these animals will be encountered when we explore those animals most associated with witchcraft (see ANIMALS).

The basis of the “fertility cult” is that life is beautiful and precious. Earth is wonderful, sacred; there is no better place to be. Physical expression of life is sacred and worthy of regeneration and reproduction. The physical universe—Earth and her living waters, the moon, other animals, plants, spiritual entities, the very human body—all are linked in a holistic web. In the best of all possible worlds, all powers within this universe are in balance, with good health, the potential for new life as desired, happiness, and joy as the result.

It’s not all positive, however. What of those who are barren, who can’t or won’t conceive? What if your individual goals are different than those of the community? What if your vision for your future, for whatever reason, doesn’t involve reproduction? If involuntary infertility is linked to spiritual imbalance, what is the perceived impact of the individual on the community? The barren woman may be perceived as dangerous to the common good, particularly in societies where agriculture and individual fertility are intensely linked.

Because women are linked to the moon, to Earth, seeds, and growth, and because those affinities aren’t perceived as only traveling one-way, an inability or unwillingness to conceive is often understood as adversely affecting the harvest, and hence everyone’s ability to eat. A woman’s infertility may be contagious or emblematic of some kind of dangerous imbalance or spiritual violation.

The healer/shaman/witch who can remedy this situation, producing miracles, stimulating conception whether through herbalism, negotiation with the spirits or any other magical process is a valued, priceless member of society. She is also feared: if she can increase odds of pregnancy, she probably has the power to decrease or eliminate it too. Maybe someone’s infertility is her fault.

Of course, all of this postulates that fertility, sex, human bodies, existence on the Earthly plane is a good thing, and thus worthy and desirous of being reproduced. This, however, isn’t a view shared by all.


Of course, there’s more than one way of making sense of the universe. The perspective of the “fertility cult” understands the world as filled with magical forces that must be balanced and carefully manipulated to achieve harmony. If any of these forces is pushed too far in any direction, balance is shattered and disharmony reigns; growth (fertility, prosperity, abundance) stagnates or stops.

But what if you’re seeing it all wrong? What if those forces cannot be balanced but are diametrically opposed? What if these forces are really in mortal combat? What if the perception that making love is sacred is only an illusion and instead what is really being made is spiritual warfare? What if the magic unification of two complementary forces (male/female) is impossible and the only possible outcome of a meeting between these two opposing forces is victory for one side, submission for the other?

What if that yin-yang symbol depicting merger and complementary coexistence of opposing forces is incorrect? Maybe the true diagram that maps existence is linear: two columns arranged like a balance sheet, or like a chessboard with opposing pieces lined up on either end.

No longer a spectrum, the material word can be organized into oppositional pairs:

Contrasting powers are no longer understood as complementary forces arranged on a spectrum; instead they are oppositional and no spectrum exists. There are no gray areas. Boundaries between oppositional forces are clear, distinct, and absolute. (In other words, no little white dot inside the black side or black dot within the white as in the yin-yang symbol.) Each opposing force is mutually exclusive of the other.

Every item on one side of the balance sheet is linked to every other item on its side and opposed to all items on the other. Each item on one side shares an essence with the others on its side; they serve the same master. The categories on this world balance sheet not only include physical observations but perceived moral, value judgments as well:

Because “evil” is now understood as absolutely distinct from “good,” serious theological concerns arise as to the origins of evil, where it comes from, who’s responsible and how it may be eradicated, once and for all. Questions as to who is leading each side, exactly who’s responsible and in charge, become crucial.

Those concerns aren’t relevant to the old shamanic/fertility cult perspective. It doesn’t figure value judgments into the equation, at least not on an abstract basis. Any power (light, dark, masculine, feminine) may be used for good or evil; it is how it is used that affects the outcome. The power in itself is neutral. This is absolutely not the case with what will become known as “dualism.”

I’ve given a very, very, very simplistic explanation of a profound disagreement in perspective that ultimately had earth-shattering, world-altering consequences, not least on spirituality, witchcraft, and women’s roles. How we treat women, children, the Earth, our natural environment, plants, and animals all derive from this dichotomy. At its most basic, the difference between the two perspectives stems from a very simple root: some people tolerate ambiguity (and may even enjoy it) while others do not.

The dualist perspective stems from very human emotions: fear and anxiety, a desire for security, clarity and order, firm unwavering boundaries, a need to categorize. Look at the balance sheet: order and clarity emerge on the same balance side as good, safe, and light. Male is on that side, too, as is right, high, and white. That old shamanic swirling world of invisible, merging, ambiguous powers is chaotic, fluid, and messy. It finds itself on the balance sheet on the same side as evil, dark, dangerous, wild, and female.

The word “dualism” is derived from the Latin duo, “two.” In English, the name also contains a pun: the two sides on that eternal chessboard duel with each other. That’s the most basic explanation of “dualism” although that word, like “witchcraft” has come to mean many things to many people. (In psychological and literary circles, as opposed to religious and historical ones, “dualism” is often used to discuss philosophers like Kant, Heidegger, and Descartes.) However, at its most basic, the term is used to denote a theological system that explains the universe as the outcome of two eternally opposed and conflicting principles, such as good and evil. There is no way to balance these forces because balance implies compromise and compromise strengthens evil. Everything in the universe can be classified on one side or the other. If classification isn’t clear, if something is ambiguous, then it’s quite obvious on which side of the balance sheet that something belongs.

In the dualist view, soul and body are distinct, and potentially in serious conflict. There’s only one of each and by nature they are out of balance. Too much attention to the finite body (and for extreme dualists, any attention) only places the immortal soul in danger. To strengthen the side of good, the perishable physical body must be sublimated, perhaps even mortified, and the soul nourished. Immortality is achieved through the survival and salvation of the soul.

On the other hand, sometimes these perspectives of the world are two sides of a single coin, like seeing the same glass as either half-full or half-empty. For instance, because women bring forth new humans from their own bodies and can provide nourishment from those bodies, and because parallels are clearly observed between women’s bodies and such physical phenomena as lunar phases and tides, in the shamanic/fertility cult perspective, women are perceived as embodying divine energy. This is because those lunar phases, nature, the whole physical world are all understood to be sacred.

From the dualist perspective, however, those very same observations of women, their reproductive ability, their associations with the dark depths of night and ocean, all indicate women’s powerful affinity with the physical world, which is affiliated with the evil side of the universal balance sheet, hence turning her into a danger zone for men’s immortal souls.

It is hard to conceive of a philosophy that has had greater worldwide impact than dualism. It has infiltrated virtually every corner of Earth, its roots so deep that they permeate our very languages. Without an understanding and awareness of dualism, you cannot understand the fear, revulsion, and/or ambivalence so many feel towards witchcraft. Because of this it is worth our while to take a brief tour through the history of dualism.

Its birthplace seems to have been in Persia, in what is now modern Iran, from whence it spread through the Middle East, the Mediterranean and beyond. Dates vary as to when Zoroaster (Zarathusra) was born in Iran. Conservative Zoroastrians, members of the religion founded on his teachings, suggest 6000 BCE. Historians generally suggest sometime between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Previously, Iranian religion had been similar to that of polytheistic Mesopotamia and the pagan Middle East. Zoroaster preached a new faith with a new perspective. Initially he was attacked for his ideas, but eventually he found favor with the king. Zoroastrianism became the state religion and remained so until the Islamic jihad arrived in Persia in 650 CE. Many Zoroastrians fled to India where a community remains, as they do in Iran and elsewhere.

Although these facts may be unfamiliar to most Western readers, elements of Zoroastrian religion will be familiar to many:

Zoroastrianism envisions the universe as a battleground of two gods who existed from the beginning: the Lord of Light and Righteousness and the Lord of Darkness and Evil. The universe is divided between into their armies, including people, who must choose a side. Fence-sitting is not an option; there is no gray area, no middle-ground; it is a world of distinct, clear boundaries. One must actively, consciously enlist in the army of the Lord of Light because if one does not do so then one willingly or inadvertently supports the opposition, the Lord of Darkness

Many Zoroastrians believe in a savior born from a virgin of the lineage of Zoroaster who will raise the dead and preside over the Final Judgment

In the inevitable final show-down, the apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil, the Lord of Darkness and his forces will be destroyed. The dead will be resurrected and the world purged and cleansed via a flood of molten metal, although only the wicked are scalded. The righteous will wade through this fiery flood as if through warm milk

There is a Final Judgment of souls. Sinners are punished (but ultimately forgiven) and then humans will be immortal, free from all Earthly ills: death, disease, old age, hunger, poverty

This vision of a world struggling between forces of good and evil permeates the philosophies and spiritual traditions known as “Gnosticism” as well.

In the most literal sense, gnosis refers to the knowledge or understanding (divine comprehension) that produces, or at least supports spiritual salvation. The Gnostic is saved when he personally sees the light and experiences epiphany.

There was never one unified Gnostic movement. Instead the term refers to a series of schools and teachers, emerging in strength during the first century CE, centered mainly in Egypt and Judea. There’s wide variety, a broad spectrum of beliefs held by the various Gnostic schools, and Pagan, Jewish, and Christian schools of Gnosticism exist. Eventually, Gnostic philosophy would exert a profound influence on mainstream Christianity.

Although there are many variations on the theme, a typical Gnostic vision goes something like this: despite religious propaganda to the contrary, the material world was not created by the highest, good God. A lower being formed the physical world but in the process, true divine sparks of light were trapped. Thus E