A recent debate making rounds in the Pagan blog-o-sphere is about a witch being an outsider or not. I am not here to define a witch—if you call yourself a witch, you are one. I already did a post on my definition of witchcraft, so I won’t go into that again. Whether or not someone is skilled and effective in their use of witchcraft is completely different than whether or not they are a witch.
Not all pagans are witches. Not all witches are pagans. I stopped calling myself a witch long ago when I realized I didn’t practice magick beyond the 101 level and had little interest in going further. There is plenty of room in paganism for lay practitioners.
Language is where this all gets tricky. The reason here is so much debate about witches is simple—the word is used to mean different things, in different way, by different people. In John Beckett’s blog post, he is using witch to mean unauthorized magick user. But that begs the question—who is an authorized magic user in modern America? The “light workers” are trying to be, but I don’t think they have any authority outside of their specific community. Jason Miller’s blog is about people so consumed with being other they don’t take power to change the greater society when there is a chance to. The original post to me is meaning witch as a pagan magic user.
Now, they are all correct. These are all ways to use the word witch. In truth, there are other terms we use for magic user beside witch, but then you also run into the problem of having to define magick, and there are some practices considered magick by non-users but the actual practitioners vehemently deny being magick. When you have a word used to describe a specific type of magick user, female magick users in general and non-magick user meanings, of course the use is going to get thorny. We also have to remember that if you practiced magick in Europe, it was to your advantage to be more than a little feared and not easy to find.
While I don’t think the solution is rigidly define all terms—having some fluidity is actually a good thing—I do think it leads into a greater discussion of the different types of magick and the different practitioners. The best metaphor I can come up with is medical care.
Your average person has some idea for how to care for small hurts everyone experiences—clean a would, put burn under cold water, nibble saltines when feeling nausea. Someone who has cared for children or is a parent will have slightly more knowledge. There are non-medical professionals who do have more skill than the average person—someone who has taken CPR or a first aid course.
Most pagan practitioners can do basic work—ground and center, cleanse and purify. It is pretty common to have some proficiency in a divination method even if you don’t perform readings for other people. There is also the level of people who do professional readings but aren’t oathed to a deity or clergy.
If you are getting a message you want clarity on, or a second opinion, or things just aren’t making sense—that’s where a reading comes in handy. Sorta like a primary care physician. A short reading is a regular check up.
When you get beyond the basic level for medical care, who you go to depends on circumstance and what you need. You break a leg, you go to the ER. Your primary refers you to a specialist if they think your medical issue requires a depth they do not have.
Likewise, there are different specialties in magick/paganism. Some people are skilled diviners. Oracles directly communicate with gods and ancestor. There are others who specialize in communicating with different types of spirits, like land spirits or house spirits. Some people specialize in working with the fey.
If you want to do a good luck spell and you want it have more oomph than you can do on you own, you hire a witch to either do the spell for you or put together a kit. You have a restless ghost in your house, you call someone who has dealt with ghosts before. If there is an issue with faeries, another person entirely. Clergy to help witness an oath and perform marriage and funerals may overlap with those functions, or not. The specialist is the person to call when the big shit goes down and you know you are in over you head, or just need a helping hand. These need to be paid well for their services and knowledge.
Our understanding of witch as an other comes form being in a society that well views a witch as an other. In pre-Christian times, there were people who practiced magick and lived outside the main village, purely by their own choice. I had a teacher opine that it might be because they were psychically sensitive, so it probably was easier for them to live slightly outside. I would also opine there might have been a sacred space it made sense to be close to. These weren’t witches in the modern sense of the term. But the terms that were used for them aren’t in modern English, so we end up defaulting to witch.
Maybe though that should be a goal of pagans—to have a set of (mostly) clear language to describe all the practices we do that we really don’t have good words for now. Or problematic words, like shaman. Such a language emerges organically, because attempts to have English be more clear and make sense usually failed spectacularly because they weren’t practical. Or was simply elevating on particular group’s English over all other types of English. But language evolves, just as society does. Maybe we can figure this one out.