Witchcraft is a practice…and in and of itself, it is not a religion, and indeed, a witch can be of any religious background and belief system.
Witchcraft is the practice of any one (or all) of most of the various types and forms of magic (I say most, because many practitioners of certain types of magic will get pissy if you call them a witch…generally witchcraft is equated with folk/”low” magick). Divination, spell casting, contacting or channeling spirits, making amulets or talismans, etc are some practices that can be considered witchcraft. These practices are independent of any particular religion, though individual religions can incorporate particular forms and/or philosophies of witchcraft.
Practices and beliefs that have been termed “witchcraft” do not constitute a single identifiable religion, since they are found in a wide variety of cultures, both present and historical; however these beliefs do generally involve religious elements dealing with spirits or deities, the afterlife, magic and ritual. Witchcraft is generally characterized by its use of magic.
Sometimes witchcraft is used to refer, broadly, to the practice of indigenous magic, and has a connotation similar to shamanism. Depending on the values of the community, witchcraft in this sense may be regarded with varying degrees of respect or suspicion, or with ambivalence, being neither intrinsically good nor evil.
Witchcraft is a practice in the same way that weaving is a practice… Say I belong to some religion that sees the universe as a tapestry….it would then follow that I might view weaving as a sacred art. But weaving in and of itself is not a sacred art to someone that belongs to a religion that sees the universe as a garden…
Who’s a Witch?
A witch is a practitioner of witchcraft. If a person practices witchcraft, and acknowledges that they are a witch, then they should be considered to be a witch. There is no reason to get pissy just because they don’t practice Brand X Witchcraft. I would argue that willingness to identify as a witch is as important in defining who *is* a witch as the pracitice of witchcraft itself.
While certian actions might technically be considered witchcraft, that does not mean that a person engaged in those actions is necessairly a witch. What practices are considered witchcraft differs from culture to culture and society to society, and in many cultures being a “witch” can be a negative thing. A person that practices beneficial magic (communicating with the ancestors, healing, curse breaking etc) may instead have a title other than witch, even if, technically, their practices can be constituted as witchcraft.
Which Witch is Which?
Many websites and even a few books will tell you that the terms witch and Wiccan or witchcraft and Wicca are interchangeable…in some cases, they can be, but overwhelimingly they are not.
Wicca (big W, denoting the religion, rather than wica/wicca/wicce…etymological predecessor from which the name of the religion Wicca originated) is one of the oldest traditions of the modern pagan movement. Wicca as a religion was created (wether wholesale, or as a ‘modernization’ of an existing tradition/s is still debated, though academics lean towards the first) by Gerald Gardner as an amalgamation of anthropological ideas of the time (which have since been discovered to be largely false), ceremonial magic, and a whole bunch of other stuff from Mr. Gardner’s world wide travels and experiences… It has aspects of its practice that were believed to be continuances of a tradition of European Witchcraft (though they more than likely were not actual pracitices). Wicca itself is a religion, but most practitioners will incorporate some form of witchcraft into their practice. (and, just to confuse you more, there are “denominations” of Wicca as well)
While Gardner uses the term witch, and later authors down the line often use the terms witch and Wicca interchangeably, they were working under Gardner’s (and the claims of some other authors such as Margaret Murray) claim to a pre-existing witchcraft tradition which Gardner was privy to. His claims of being initiated into this tradition, and the claims that Wicca was a survivor of this tradition, led to the idea and use of the two terms being interchangeable…an assumption which has no real academic basis, but has been commonly found in the lexicon (I always wanted a reason to use that word!) of the Pagan community. (The debate over who “is”/”is not” Wiccan is another matter, which can be found here )
Short Schpiel on Witchy Ethics
Witchcraft, in and of itself is not seen within the pagan community as “good” or “evil”, though some practitioners will make a big distinction between “light” or “white” and “dark” or “black” magic. Other practitioners do not. There *can be*, depending on a practitioner’s specific tradition or personal beliefs a particular set of ethics and/or rules governing the practice of witchcraft/magic for that person, but it is in no way (regardless of what some websites and texts claim) universal among pagans.
The most common ethic (that is in no way universal) is The Rede, “‘An it harm none, do as ye will”, occasionally short-handed as “Harm None”. This is taken literally by some, figuratively by others and not at all by everyone else (for a fantastic discussion on the Rede, consider these essays by Proteus Coven, “Exegesis on the Rede”, “An It Harm None: high-choice ethics”, “Do What You Will: best-choice values” ).
My personal ethic is this: If you are willing to own the actions, and the results of your actions and to accept full responsibility for all that your actions cause, and you feel that it is necessary, then you should do as you see fit.
Witchcraft References and other POVs: