What is a Witch?

I have been asked by folks- how do you know if you’re a witch? What defines a witch vs a spiritual person who’s into herbs, nature, crystals and energy?

This is a very good question! I don’t have a definitive answer, simply because I don’t feel I have the right to tell someone else whether they are truly a witch or not. But, I can tell you a bit about my experience and share some thoughts about it that may help you define it for yourself.

The witch as archetype

The definititon of what a witch is can vary from person to person and culture to culture. It has changed over time as well. It is interesting to me how witchcraft comes and goes in popularity. But overall, it seems to be steadily rising and gaining acceptance in dominant culture, which I feel reflects peoples’ need to feel empowered and connected to something deeper and meaningful in their relationship to the material world, self and others.

Some of us have grown up pre-Harry Potter era, where fairytales and myths depicted witches as dangerous, child-eating, power-hungry, jealous and ugly-looking older women who were always up to no good.

However, there are also expressions of the playful, sweet, mischievous and even housewifey witches, such as in the show Bewitched.

As a teen in the 1990s we had The Craft, Charmed, Buffy and Sabrina which catered to an audience our age, emphasizing the rule-breaking, adventurous, non-comformist aspect of the witch archetype.

The witch archetype seems to encompass a variety of expressions of ‘female’ power- She can be seductive, maternal, dangerous, non-conformist, with the ability to both heal and destroy. She can be old or young. Witches aren’t limited to the woman-identified, either. There are male, non-binary and trans witches, it can be an identity for anywhere on the gender spectrum.

The witch can change their reality at will, and either work in harmony with the forces of nature or discover the consequences of working against them.

Scene from the 1996 movie The Craft

Ultimately, it seems the archetype of witch has much to do with power. Specifically, the power to transform, create and destroy. Culturally this has been associated with the feminine, and a cultural fear of the feminine- in the form of women specifically.

The witch as an archetype challenges us to take charge of our reality and empower ourselves. In a society where some are automatically given more power than others, it is often those with less power who find solace and strength in the witch archetype- because they can identify with having others’ fears projected onto them, and strive to defy the suppression and oppression that is set against them.

Fear of power

Because of the history of the witch hunts, and the patriarchal/colonial agenda to strip women in particular of their power in society, there is a general fear in us, especially those who identify with the feminine- of our own power.

This may mean we don’t trust our intuitive senses, our body’s natural cycles or our ability to heal, create, or transmute energy.

We may fear and suppress our own inner wisdom and authority so as not to threaten the status quo. We may remain small and invisible and silent for fear of being cast out, or taken down by those who feel threatened or jealous.

There is a sort of silent agreement that gets passed down through generations of women that in order to survive, we must stay small, be good, tow the line. That looks different depending on the generation and culture you grew up in. But in essence, it is the same message.

Many of us are carrying a fear that if we reclaim our intuitive, creative wisdom and power, we will be met with abandonment, ostracization or even death. If we come out of the broom closet and call ourselves a witch- because we embrace the liminal, magickal lifestyle, we fear that on some level, we are threatening the status quo and death could result.

Myself and likely other folks following a pagan path feel need to break from these generational narratives that are no longer sustaining us, nor the generations to come. This takes lots of time, sensitivity and patience. For many witches, this is a big part of what the path demands from us.

Fear of power is also sometimes the reason folks choose not to identify as a witch, because it is loaded with projections and generations of this fear, and they just don’t want to carry that. This is valid. But it can also be the exact reason one chooses to call themselves a witch, as an act of reclaiming and redefining for oneself who they are. In redefining the meaning of witch-by living it on one’s own terms, one can transform the baggage behind the title for the generations to come.

What does the word witch conjure in your mind?

Depending on the environment you grew up in, you may have a vastly different idea of what a witch is compared to someone else. Take a moment to reflect on what comes to mind when you utter the word witch?

Often, it is a combination of representations of the witch archetype you’ve been exposed to throughout your life.

If you are a spiritual, nature-loving, magickal person who is wondering whether you should call yourself a witch or not, there are a couple questions you may wish to ask yourself:

What does the word ‘witch’ mean to me?

What aspects of my associations with ‘witch’ do I embrace or feel uncomfortable with?

How would I define the word ‘witch’ for myself?

And finally:

How does my spiritual practice and lifestyle resonate with my definition of a witch?

What led me to identifying as a witch

I had always been a sensitive, intuitive child, naturally talking to invisible spirits and listening to the wind and trees as friends. I sensed the power in crystals and rocks. I had a strong ‘knowing’ of what was going to happen sometimes, and easily felt the hidden truth in people and situations. I felt the presence of ancestors and guides around me. I wished upon stars and dandelions, looked for 4 leaf clovers and lucky pennies.

As I grew older, I became obsessed with tarot cards and astrology. I believed in the power of visualization and intention. Through my mind-body studies I discovered the power I had to heal and transform my body, my energy and how to manifest my intentions.

But it took me some time to identify as a witch. To me, being a witch was a lifestyle. There was a structure, purpose and commitment to it.

In my teens and 20’s I started unpacking some of the Catholic beliefs from my childhood. At 13 I refused to go through my confirmation, and that felt really good to me, because I felt no connection to the church. As time went on, I realised that I felt more connection to a Goddess presence than a God one.

I didn’t feel a connection with one particular goddess but started praying to ‘Goddess’ and feeling what that meant to me. I grew that relationship over time. It has gone through many forms. I now acknowledge some of the gods as well and generally consider myself a polytheist, but still tend to favour the goddess in many forms. Deity however, may or may not be part of a witch’s path, as we are all unique.

I knew I had a deep connection to the land around me, but I wasn’t very intentional about it, more just open and sensitive to it. So, I started cultivating an intentional relationship with the natural world around me, bringing offerings and talking to specific trees regularly, listening to what they have to say about themselves, life or my concerns.

I started celebrating the solstices and equinoxes and cross-quarter days, learning of the traditions behind these celebrations.

It was when I started purposefully observing and celebrating the witches’ sabbats, communing with the moon and land intentionally and regularly, that I started to feel I was a witch. A big piece was doing rituals. Even simple ones, such as daily smoke cleansing or preparing a healing bath. The difference was that I was doing these actions with awareness and appreciation of the energy of each herb, oil, current moon phase as spirit allies and weaving that with my intention to create a specific energetic quality and outcome. I was co-creating reality with the world around me.

Also, for me, embracing all of the aspects of the archetype of ‘witch’- all the shadow parts and fun parts- was empowering and strengthening to my sense of witch self.

I reclaim and embrace the word witch as my own. My inner cackling hag, seductress, mischief maker, raging feminist, green eyed monster, as well as my medicine making, nurturing, healing, and creative witch are all parts of me that I accept.

Some witches do a lot of spellwork. Some do none. When I do formal rituals and spells, it is usually to heal myself around challenging situations in my life.

 Mostly, I weave magickal intentions, words and rituals into the rhythm of my daily life. This is part of why I consider myself a Hearthwitch, as I tend towards the less glamorous, more folky type of witchcraft, centered around my home and inner hearth. I also have called myself a Womb Witch, as much of my practice centered around my own womb healing for some time. I follow my intuition and value the freedom to follow the beat of my own drum.

Many diverse pagan paths

There are many pagan paths that honour nature, energy and magick in different forms, and not all Pagans consider themselves Witches. Some are Druids, Warlocks, Wiccans (Wicca is a specific modern Pagan religion), Heathens, Priests or Priestesses. There are Folk Witches, Green Witches, Grey Witches, all kinds of witches under the witch umbrella. Some may be a combination of these, some prefer to call themselves Pagan or simply spiritual. There are folks who combine christianity with paganism as well. Some prefer the community spirit of temples, churches and covens, while others prefer the freedom of being solitary.

Here are some take aways:

You don’t need to call yourself a witch to be a magickal, spiritual or nature-loving person.

In calling yourself a witch, you are not bound to any narrow definitions or archetypes from pop culture or myth.

There are many diverse pagan paths and titles- you may feel something else is more suitable for you.

Reclaiming the word and title of witch can be an act of empowerment and intergenerational healing.

As this interesting article by Time magazine states:

This is also why being called a witch and calling oneself a witch are usually two vastly different experiences. In the first case, it’s often an act of degradation, an attack against a perceived threat.

The second is an act of reclamation, an expression of autonomy and pride. Both of these aspects of the archetype are important to keep in mind. They may seem like contradictions, but there is much to glean from their interplay.

The witch is the ultimate feminist icon because she is a fully rounded symbol of female oppression and liberation. She shows us how to tap into our own might and magic, despite the many who try to strip us of our power.

We need her now more than ever.”

I hope that gives you some ideas to consider. What do you think about calling yourself a witch?

May your path be lit with the wisdom, wit and curiosity the witch is famous for.

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As a Witch who makes her home and practice in Tkaronto (Toronto) Ontario, I deeply thank the original stewards of this land: The Mississaugas of the Credit, Mississaugas of Scugog, Alderville, Hiawatha & Curve Lake; The Chippewas of Beausoleil, Rama & Georgina island, the Haudenosaunee and Wendat nations. I acknowledge the resilience of the First Nation, Inuit and Metis people who live and work here in the present, in a system of inequity and oppression. I am working on uncolonising my own practice, amplifying Indigenous voices, addressing cultural appropriation in pagan communities and supporting Indigenous communities in whatever way I can.

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