It is believed that the word "witch" comes from the Germanic root "wic," meaning "to turn" or "to bend." The use of the terms "Witch" and "Witchcraft" are controversial among Wiccans, as some practitioners feel these words are loaded with so many negative connotations that they cause more trouble than they're worth. These Wiccans prefer the terms "priest" or "priestess." Other practitioners feel these words should be reclaimed as terms for people (particularly women) with spiritual power. Many Witches consider the healers, midwives, and village wisewomen or cunning men of the past to be their predecessors. These people's practices and beliefs were labeled "Satanic" by Inquisitors eager to end the practice of nature religions. This false stereotype persists to this day.
The single most important element that Witches share in common is their adherence to the Wiccan Rede: "If it harm none, do what you will." This maxim encourages personal freedom within the context of community. Many Witches also believe in the Law of Threes or the Law of Return, which states that every energy the Witch sends forward returns to her/him threefold. Therefore, it's better to treat others with love, generosity, and respect, for the Witch receives these things back threefold. Witches generally view the world holistically, seeing all parts of existence, whether spiritual, intellectual, or sensual, as interconnected. One of the most common teachings in the Craft is to love and respect life in all its forms.
This sense of interconnection is seen in the honoring of the Goddess. Most visions of the Goddess are based on the ancient view that she encompassed all life, good and bad. Within the Goddess, there is no split between body and mind, or matter and spirit. Nature is viewed as sacred. Since we are part of nature, we are sacred as well. Witches find joy in the material as well as the spiritual worlds. Sexuality is not something "dirty." Created by the Gods, it is sacred. While some Witches honor a single aspect of the Goddess, others honor the divine partnership of the Goddess and the God. Still others worship many Gods and Goddesses, whether from one culture (such as a Celtic pantheon) or from several. The Goddess is often seen in triple form, as Maiden, Mother, and Crone, while the God may be seen as both the Horned God of the Forests and the Lord of Death and Resurrection. Since many Witches believe in reincarnation, death is envisioned not as an end but merely a natural transition.
Rituals usually involve the consecration of space (usually a circle or sphere), honoring of the four Elements, invocation of deities, and a meal. While it was once considered essential to be initiated by and practice with a coven (usually a group of 3-13 members), there is now widespread acceptance of self-initiated "solitaries" in the Craft. Within the Circle, power is raised through meditation, chants, drumming, dance, or song. This power is used for healing or other forms of magic. Additional activities in the Circle include divination, poetry readings, praying, or enacting dramas (often retellings of ancient myths). Witches are initiated as priests or priestesses of Wicca; Witches participate in religious ritual without a middleman. Most Witches, to one degree or another, believe divinity resides within and can be accessed through the self, and respect one another accordingly.
Two things which have often been misunderstood by the public are the Book of Shadows and the pentagram. The former is a compendium of a coven's or a Witch's laws, ethics, rituals, spells, training techniques, and experiences. The pentagram, or five-pointed star, has been known since Babylonian times and represents, among other things, protection, the human body, the hand, the element of Earth, and perfect balance. The inverted (point down) pentagram is used as a symbol in the second-degree initiation in Gardnerian Witchcraft, but in general the pentagram is shown in the upright position. Some Pagans feel the inversion of the pentagram by Satanists is as much a corruption of the Craft as is Satanists' inversion of the cross a corruption of Christianity.
Lastly, while terms such as "white Witch" or "black magic" may seem like good clarifiers to separate Witches from Satanists, the terms are actually inherently racist and most Witches do not use them. Male Witches are not called "warlocks," as this term derives from the Anglo-Saxon term for "oathbreaker."
This information is available from PEN as a brochure. If you would like more information about Witchcraft or other Pagan religions, please contact PEN at our mailing address. This information © 1996 PEN