“Witch” Definitions

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Isaac Bonewits tracks the origins of the word witch in his work
A Very Brief History of Witchcraft 1.0

What Does the Word “Witch” Mean?

I know that many people are bugged by etymology, but sometimes the best clues to understanding old folk beliefs and customs are to be found in the pages of etymological dictionaries.

Those clues must be treated very cautiously, since words are slippery, slithery things. Many times the same word will be used for different concepts (not always closely connected), and of course most languages have concepts that are referred to by several different words. depending upon the emphasis desired. Even within a single tongue, the meanings of words change drastically with time. New words are invented and old ones forqotten; war and trade bring in “slang” and “loan words” which frequently replace venerable and respected terms. Whenever possible, of course, one must consider the social and cultural environment in which a given word was used — a difficult task when most of the relevant data has been lost.

Tiptoeing through the Dictionaries

With those warnings firmly in mind, let’s make a start at clearing up the linguistic chaos. As some people may already know, the word “witch” in Modern English comes, via the Middle English wycche, from the Old English wicce (feminine) and wicca (masculine). The plural form was wiccan (now used as an adjective for followers of Neopagan Witchcraft, see below). All these terms referred to agents or performers of wiccian, defined in most etymological dictionaries as meaning “to practice sorcery or magic.”

Old English, Old Norse, Old Irish, Old Dutch, Latin and a few other tongues, are all members of the Western branch of the Indo-European languages. These in turn are all outgrowths of an original mother tongue, called by linguists, “Proto-Indo-European” (or “PIE” for short). By comparing variations of a word not just within a given language, but among and between its sister tonques as well, it is often possible to trace back its linguistic development from an original PIE root.

It appears that the absolute, rock bottom root of “witch” in early PIE was *wy-, “to bend, twist” (an asterisk is used by linguists to indicate reconstructed words or word fragments). Within PIE, this root developed in at least two directions having to do with trees: *wyg-, meaning “elm” and *wyt, meaning “willow.” In both cases the words seem to have referred not only to the culturally and economically important trees themselves, but to the withies and shoots of the trees, artifacts woven or twisted out of them (cords, ropes, mats, thatched roofs, etc.), and the very concepts of weaving, twisting, binding and bending.

As the centuries rolled by and the original PIE speaking community split up and began migrating, these simple roots began to grow and mutate. Their pronunciations were changed several times, the denotations (items pointed to) of elm and willow were switched back and forth (and occasionally blended), but the connotations (ideas pointed to) of bending and weaving, etc., were maintained and elaborated.

The development of primary interest for the origin of “witch” was that of the Anglo-Saxon wic-, meaning “to turn, twist or bend.” This root also later grew into “weak,” “wicker” and “wicked,” all based on the idea of something bendable or twisted. In Old English wicca/wicce this concept was extended in a specifically magical direction. (I am indebted to Paul Friedrich’s Proto-Indo-European Trees for most of this botanical/linguistic data.)

The sort of magic involved may be surmised from a comparison with simultaneous developments in the sister tongues. In Old Norse, the root vik- became the Icelandic/Norwegian vikja, meaning “to turn aside, conjure away, exorcise.” Proto-Germanic wik- became the Low German wikken, “to foretell,” and the Middle Dutch wicker, “a soothsayer.” Various other words referring to sorcery, divination, special knowledge, and so forth, developed out of the PIE *wyg- and *wyt-, via the roots wic-, wik-, wig-, wit-, etc.

The fact that several of the words referred to knowledge led some to claim a link between all of these roots and the PIE *wys-, meaning “wise.” They then declared that original meaning of wicce/wicce was therefore “wise one….”

[Read the full article here at www.spiritualitea.com by Issac Bonewits. It’s a comprehensive perspective that details many misconceptions and historical influences on our modern beliefs.]


Allen Greenfield offers additional perspective in his work The True History of Witchcraft...

“Further, this humanist argument goes, the `witchcraft’ of Satanic worship, broomstick riding, of Sabbats and Devil-marks, was a rather late invention, borrowing but little from remaining memories of actual pre-Christian paganism. We have seen a resurrection of this mania in the 1980s flurry over `Satanic sacrificial’ cults, with as little evidence.

For the graspers at straws, we may find an occasional line in a “confession” which is intriguing, as in the notations on the “confession” of one woman from Germany dated in late 1637. After days of unspeakable torment, wherein the woman confesses under pain, recants when the pain is removed, only to be moved by more pain to confess again, she is asked: “How did she influence the weather? She does not know what to say and can only whisper, Oh, Heavenly Queen, protect me!”

Was the victim calling upon “the goddess”? Or, as seems more likely, upon that aforementioned transfiguration of all ancient goddesses in Christian mythology, the Virgin Mary. One more quote from Dr. Robbins, and I will cease to parade late medieval history before you.

It comes from yet another priest, Father Cornelius Loos, who observed, in 1592 that “Wretched creatures are compelled by the severity of the torture to confess things they have never done, and so by cruel butchery innocent lives are taken…” (ibid., p 16). The “evidence” of the witch trials indicates, on the whole, neither the Satanism the church and state would have us believe, nor the pagan survivals now claimed by modern Wicca; rather, they suggest only fear, greed, human brutality carried out to bizarre extremes that have few parallels in all of history. But, the brutality is not that of `witches’ nor even of `Satanists’ but rather that of the Christian Church, and the government.

What, then, are we to make of modern Wicca? It must, of course, be observed as an aside that in a sense witchcraft or “wisecraft” has, indeed, been with us from the dawn of time, not as a coherent religion or set of practices and beliefs, but as the folk magic and medicine that stretches back to early, possibly Paleolithic tribal shamans on to modern China’s so-called ‘barefoot doctors'” [ http://www.paganlibrary.com http://altreligion.about.com/od/historicalwitchcraft/Historical_Witchcraft.htm%5D



Cauldron of Poesy

By Erynn Rowan Laurie explains and offers a translation of the ancient Cauldron of Poesy. Laurie also attributes a for of ‘weis’ to a more commonplace ‘seer’.

“There is some debate in the scholarly community about whether the filidh were a subclass of druid, or an independent order of poets and magicians. Fili is cognate with vates, a Gaulish religious functionary, and ovate, a similar British station. The highest ranking filidh were called ollamh. The word fili probably means “seer.” The word derives from the Archaic Irish *weis by way of the Insular Celtic word *wel- which had the original imperative meaning “see!” or “look at!” and is related to the Irish verb to be. 8 Their work included divination, blessing and blasting magic, creating praise poetry for their patrons, the preservation of lore and genealogies, and occasionally the rendering of judgments. Cormac’s Glossary derives fili from “fi, ‘poison’ in satire, and li ‘splendor’ in praise, and it is variously that the poet proclaims…” [Read the complete essay at Cauldron of Poesy ]

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3 Comments

  1. September 8, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    […] wik- became wikken, “to foretell” and Dutch wicker, “a soothsayer.” read the article The pagan "wys woman". She heeded the signs of […]

  2. Gabri-El said,

    June 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    A witch is a woman who discovers she is Truth; the absolute root of the universe. Truth applied to the flux of materiel existence becomes wisdom; the daughter of Truth. Wisdom thus becomes the character of Truth, her mind-her body-her machine, with which a witch walks the earth caring for each of her offspring personally-the divine mother loving her creation.

    • June 20, 2012 at 11:53 pm

      Gabri-El

      Thank you for your eloquent insight. If it rings true, we already knew. And you remind us. Thank you.


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