Witchery 101: Ways and Means – an Introduction to Witchcraft Traditions

Traditions are like marriages – serious, committed relationships usually closed to outsiders. One of the most intimidating factors in becoming a witch is finding a tradition that fits – or finding a tradition at all. Things were a lot more complicated in the dark days before the internet. One had to rely on fate and personal networking to find practitioners willing to talk and covens open to new initiates. Now one need only search local Meet-ups or the vast resource that is the Witches’ Voice to find groups or like-minded solitaries.

One of the nice things about a religion that is not bound by historical dogma* is that it can adapt to the evolving needs of its followers. So while the Gardnerian tradition is considered the “oldest” path, and arguably the source of all others, there are many different ways to get your witch on. Here are a few, brought to you by the incomparable Judika Illes from her lovely little tome The Weiser Field Guide to Witches (I have added Wikipedia links for those who want more information, as well as recommended reading for each subject):

Alexandrian Wicca
This tradition’s name pays tribute to its founder, Alex Sanders, and also to the ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt, once the largest  library in the world and a repository of sacred, mystical wisdom. Alexandrian Wicca was established in the United Kingdom in the  1960s.

Atheist Witches 
As atheists, these witches do not acknowledge a Supreme Creator or the Wiccan conception of a Lord and Lady; but work their magic using Earth’s natural powers and energies. Some may work with elemental spirits such as land spirits or fairies.

Cabot Tradition This tradition, based on the teachings of Salem witch Laurie Cabot, emphasizes that witchcraft is a science, art, and religion. The Cabot Tradition also emphasizes psychic development.

Chaos Magic 

There is no one specific school of Chaos Magic, also spelled Chaos Magick, nor do its practitioners adhere to one specific philosophy or spiritual tradition. Instead those who define themselves as chaos magicians share a certain attitude toward magic. Chaos Magic is defined as the primal creative force in the universe. Chaos magicians learn and experiment with various magical techniques in order to tap into this underlying, primal, creative force in whatever ways work best and most effectively for them. Chaos Magic is influenced by the work of visionary artist and magician Austin Osman Spare, who wrote, “What is there to believe, but in Self?”

The Clan of Tubal Cain
This tradition, founded by English witch Robert Cochrane, is based on practical traditional witchcraft, shamanism, Celtic mysticism, and Cochrane’s interpretation of Druidry. The American branch of the Clan of Tubal Cain is known as the 1734 Tradition.

Dianic Wicca 
Sometimes also called Wimmin’s Religion, Dianic Wicca is a feminist spiritual tradition and the only form of witchcraft that is exclusively female. Women’s rights and rites are combined in celebration of female divinity. The name of the tradition pays tribute to the Italian goddess, Diana. Among Dianic Wicca’s founding mothers is author Z. Budapest, who formed the Susan B. Anthony Coven in Los Angeles on the Winter Solstice of 1971. In 1975, Budapest self-published The Feminist Book of Lights and Shadows, a collection of rituals and spells that became the basic text of Dianic Wicca. It has since been republished as The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries: Feminist Witchcraft, Goddess Rituals, Spellcasting and Other Womanly Arts . . . . Dianic Wicca may be considered similar in essence to the women’s mystery traditions of ancient Rome. Most Dianic covens are exclusively female. Sybil Leek sometimes called her own tradition Dianic, but what she practiced was not the same as Dianic Wicca.

Faerie Witchcraft
This shamanic tradition involves actual interaction with fairies. Faerie witches, also spelled fairy witches, practice Earth-centered magic with emphasis on plant and animal familiars. Historically, many witches have worshipped and communed with fairies. In 1662, while being  interrogated, Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie described her visits to the Fairy Queen. Similar testimony was given in French, Italian, and Hungarian witch trials. Faerie Witchcraft is profoundly influenced by Scottish clergyman Reverend Robert Kirk’s mysterious account of Fairyland, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies, written in 1691 but not published until the early 19th century. Influential modern practitioners of Faerie Witchcraft include authors R. J. Stewart and Aline DeWinter. Faerie Witchcraft is not the same as Feri Tradition, nor is it the same as the various Wiccan traditions identified as Fairy Wicca.

Feri Tradition 
This shamanic, ecstatic, initiatory, spiritual, and magical system, also sometimes spelled Fairy, Faery, or Faerie Tradition, began its modern incarnation in the 1940s when author, poet, and witch Victor Anderson (1917–2001) began initiations. Anderson is typically described as Feri’s “founder,” but he described himself as a transmitter of ancient information. Another branch of Feri Tradition is known as Vicia. Anderson taught that Feri Tradition derives originally from a primordial people who emerged from Africa thousands of years ago, the original fairies—although they are known by many other names in different cultures. Their teachings were transmitted orally over the generations. Feri is an experiential tradition and various distinct Feri lineages and teachers now exist. Different lineages are influenced to different extents by different spiritual traditions including Celtic, Hawaiian, and Vodou. What most Feri practitioners share in common is direct personal interaction with spirits or deities. They do not subscribe to the Wiccan Rede (Do what you will but harm none); instead, each practitioner must take personal responsibility for her or his own actions.

Gardnerian Wicca
Gardnerian Wicca is the oldest, most formal modern Wiccan tradition. Based on the teachings and practices of Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), it is named “Gardnerian” in order to honor him but also to distinguish this tradition from older, less formalized traditions. The term Gardnerian Wicca may originally have been coined by Robert Cochrane, who was not a fan of Gardner or of his tradition. Its standard text is The Gardnerian Book of Shadows, which Gardner co-authoredwith Diane Valiente. At the time of its writing, Valiente and Gardner believed that they were involved in the evolution of an old faith, not the creation of a new one.

Hedge Witchery 
No initiation is necessary to be a hedge witch. Hedge witches are unaffiliated, solitary practitioners. The term “hedge witch” derives from “hedge rider” and similar northern European synonyms for witch. A hedge is a dense wall of bushes and other shrubbery. Once upon a time, large, dense hedgerows separated a village from surrounding forests. The hedge is a liminal zone, simultaneously a barrier and a threshold between the civilized world and wild nature. Witches were the hedge-riders who navigated this zone. The modern term “hedge witch” is sometimes used as a synonym for “kitchen witch” or is intended to serve as an all-encompassing name for the large community of non-affiliated, non-initiated, non-Wiccan witches. The term “hedge witch,” however, possesses shamanic undertones. By definition, a hedge rider or hedge witch travels between at least two worlds: the world of conventional reality and a spirit or afterlife realm.

Hereditary Witchcraft
By definition, a hereditary witch comes from a family in which at least one other person is or was a witch. Most hereditary witches derive from a lineage of witches; the trait is often passed down from parent to child, although sometimes generations are skipped. The term is also sometimes used by someone with one long-ago ancestor who was a witch or believed to be one. “Hereditary witch” is not a definitive term, and different people may interpret it in different ways. Some hereditary witches share traditions that are unique to their own families, but others do not. Fictional witches are very frequently hereditary; for instance, the Halliwell Sisters from the television series Charmed, or the Pure Bloods of the Harry Potter universe. Most modern witches are not hereditary.

A high percentage of the enslaved Africans in the pre-Civil War United States were of Congolese origin. They brought a sophisticated system of magic with them to North America, where it merged with European folk magic, Native American, and other African traditions to form a whole new magical system now called Hoodoo. A practitioner of Hoodoo is traditionally known as a “worker.” Hoodoo is very closely related to New Orleans Voodoo; the names are sometimes used interchangeably. Hoodoo is a system of practical magic, not a specific spiritual tradition. Hoodoo practitioners may belong to any or no religion. There are Pagan, atheist, and Jewish Hoodoo workers, for instance. Some Hoodoo traditions are intensely Christian. Many Hoodooers incorporate sacred texts into their practice, especially the Book of Psalms or the Book of Job.

Independent Eclectic
Most modern witches are not affiliated with any one specific tradition. Most witches incorporate whatever works for them or complements their own spiritual beliefs. Urban witches, in particular, may have many influences that are then integrated and incorporated in independent and eclectic ways. No one category may be sufficient to identify their practice; hence they are independent and eclectic.

This informal and eclectic tradition incorporates witchcraft, magical practice, and often shamanism with Judaism or Jewish self-awareness. Emphasis is placed on individualism. A Jewitch may or may not be a religious Jew. Judaism may be understood as a tribal group rather than as religion, and so essentially a Jewitch is someone who identifies as both Jewish and as a witch. Some Jewitches incorporate traditional Jewish folk magic or Jewish angelology into their practice. Others identify with pre-exile or pre-Second Temple Jewish traditions that may have been less monotheistic than modern Judaism. Still others identify with Canaanite traditions. Jewitches may or may not also consider themselves Jewish Pagans. Some Jewitches are Wiccan; others are not.

Kitchen Witchery
Kitchen witchery is a practice, rather than a specific spiritual or magical tradition. What distinguishes the kitchen witch from other witches is that the majority of her tools and ingredients are readily found in the home. A kitchen witch can cast a spell using ingredients found in her kitchen cupboards. Her magical tools may or may not be indistinguishable from ordinary household tools. The concept of kitchen witchery is ancient. For centuries, it was not safe to be an obvious witch. Low-key, discreet magical practice helped keep witchcraft—and witches—alive. Most kitchen witches are solitary practitioners who are well-versed (or learning to be well-versed) in herb lore and folk magic. Much kitchen witchery involves magical protection of the home and family. Associations with the kitchen are no accident; spells are often cast in the form of delicious meals. A kitchen witch might be conscious of stirring eggs in a clockwise (also known as sun-wise) direction, for instance, in order to draw in positive solar energy. A synonym for kitchen witch is hearth witch. A kitchen witch also refers to a kind of doll, a household amulet in the form of a flying witch that is traditionally hung up in the kitchen to bring good luck. These kitchen witches are of Scandinavian origin and recall Swedish Easter witches. (In Sweden, witches are associated with Easter, rather than Halloween. Children dress up as witches for parades and folkloric traditions similar to American trick-or-treating. Swedish Easter witches wear the guise of old peasant women, rather than black hats and dresses.)

Non-Wiccan Witches
This term was invented in response to the now-common assumption that all modern witches are Wiccan. Non-Wiccan witches may belong to any tradition other than modern Wicca. Non-Wiccan witches may belong to any spiritual or religious tradition or none—agnostic or atheist witches are typically considered non-Wiccan. Shamanic witches who perceive spirits as unique individual beings rather than as aspects of the Lord and Lady may also identify as non-Wiccan. Those who do not subscribe to the Wiccan Rede are, by definition, non-Wiccan.

Shamanic Witchcraft
By definition, shamanic witches blend elements of shamanism into their witchcraft. Some use the term “shamanic witch” to indicate a spirit worker, but a shamanic witch may incorporate trance and shamanic soul journeying into her practice, practices not necessarily done by a spirit worker.

Traditional Witchcraft
This is a loose definition; there are many schools and kinds of Traditional Witchcraft. Essentially, traditional witches are practitioners of forms of witchcraft that pre-date modern Wicca and New Age practices. Some people use this term to refer to hereditary traditions that are exclusive to specific families. Others use the term for specifically British traditions pre-dating Gardnerian Wicca. Others consider traditional witchcraft to be a worldwide phenomenon that refers to any practitioner of folk magic.

Although some people use the word “Wiccan” as a synonym for any kind of witch, in general, Wiccans perceive Wicca to be a specific religion or spiritual tradition, not just magical practice, which may or may not be encouraged. By definition, Wiccans subscribe to the Wiccan Rede, which states, Do what you will but harm none. (Rede is an archaic word for “rule.”) Those who do not subscribe to the rede are not Wiccan. Wiccans worship a male and a female deity, the Lord and the Lady. (Dianic Wicca is an exception, as most Dianic Wiccans only worship the feminine divine.) Wicca has a religious calendar, as does any other religion. Festivals, known as sabbats and esbats, honor the Wheel of the Year, the cyclical turning of nature’s seasons. The most famous Wiccan sabbat is Samhain, which falls on Halloween. Other Wiccan sabbats include Beltane, Imbolc, and Yule. Wicca tends to be an initiatory religion, but it is not  exclusively so. There are different denominations of Wicca, with different rules and  restrictions, in the same way as Protestant denominations. Modern Wicca is based on the teachings of Gerald Gardner, but the word is also sometimes used to refer to pre-Gardnerian British witchcraft traditions, as in Rhiannon Ryall’s 1989 book, West Country Wicca: A Journal of the Old Religion. To add to the confusion, there are also those, usually outsiders to witchcraft, who perceive the word “witch” to be derogatory, like a
racial slur. They may use the word “Wiccan,” perceived as less offensive, as a generic synonym for “witch” because they are trying their best to be polite.

  • Recommended Reading: too many to mention, but start with The Wicca Handbook, by Eileen Holland

There have been witches throughout history, documented in sources as “reliable” as the Bible (Witch of Endor anyone?), but details on their spell-work and magic-making are hard to come by. The reason for this, of course, is the secretive nature of witchcraft. Those witches who spell-worked for profit were not likely to share their knowledge freely, and the persecution, torture and execution of witches throughout history meant that record keeping was paramount to signing your own death warrant. So although the magical information that we have now is consistent and effective, we cannot prove unequivocally that it is of historic origins.  

One thought on “Witchery 101: Ways and Means – an Introduction to Witchcraft Traditions

  1. Green Owl

    What a wonderful resource this blog is and what an informative post!!! I guess I am on my way to becoming an ‘atheist, ecclectic, kitchen witch.’ As an atheist witch I am content to be a solitary practitioner, except for the company of my daughter, a fledgling witch by my side. She is a truly ancient soul and I feel privileged to be her mother.

    We are just arrived at the threshold and wondered, if you had but one word of advice to give… what would it be?

    Blessed be.

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