In current media and pop culture, we are constantly exposed to a barrage of imagery both glorifying and stereotyping the practice of witchcraft. This is no surprise, as witchcraft has gone through quite a process: a practice that includes holistic medical care, midwifery, eco-activism, and queerness was for centuries defined as evil, illegal, dangerous, and forbidden.
This guide is created to demystify witchcraft and create a context for the craft. A person could write entire books on the subject. While we do not have the space for that much dissection, I will touch on common aspects of witchcraft, popular traditions, and commonalities. I will also lightly touch upon a few tools, symbols, and spells that maintain apparent universality to make them relevant to any practitioner regardless of tradition.
What is Witchcraft?
Witchcraft is a term that has many meanings, which depend heavily on cultural context and situation. At its simplest, witchcraft can be thought of as a “practice of magic.” However, the deeper one gets into the magical and spiritual community, the more words carry nuance and meaning.
For this article, I’ll define the word witchcraft as a magical and metaphysical practice used to influence the world around us in conjunction with or beyond accepted scientific explanations with results. Witchcraft does not have to be a spiritual expression or a religion, although, for some traditions, it does overlap. Witchcraft can be a solo or group practice; it can include materials or not include materials; it can be inherited or learned.
There are many cultural folk magics that fall under this description of witchcraft. However, it would be rude to describe them in that way. If there is a more appropriate cultural language for a tradition and its practices, that should always be used first. For this article, unless otherwise stated, I am attempting to reference the resurgence of witchcraft in the United States and parts of Western Europe as a re-emergence.
Redefining Witchcraft and Decolonization
Much of witchcraft lore in Western Europe and the colonized regions of the Americas is steeped with Christian rhetoric. In fact, Christianity in a large part, helped to preserve aspects of the concept by freezing the idea of “witch” as a source of evil, devil worship, and malevolence.
This perspective of witchcraft still paints much of the Western world. However, ask someone who calls themselves a witch, and there’s a slight chance that they will tell you they work with “the devil.” There’s a higher likelihood of them telling you about their favorite plant or discussing how they’ve been collecting very magical rocks recently. While there are certain paths that intersect with our post-modern understanding of witchcraft that practice “devil worship,” even those are far beyond what you might expect.
This is because as a broader culture, America and much of Western Europe is accustomed to viewing the world through a lens designed by Christianity. The first step to understanding witchcraft is being aware of that forced perspective, enough so to see beyond it. Witches have typically always been folk healers, herbalists, in some cases midwives, and keepers of deep animistic knowledge. We find that as the concept of witchcraft as a way of life becomes repopularized through mediums like Tiktok, Facebook, Netflix, and other pop phenomena, many of these aspects are being reintroduced into culture and society.
It should also be noted – “witch” has been a gendered word in the past, but typically isn’t so now. It simply refers to a type of practitioner of magic, and not a gender.
Types of Craft
Because “witchcraft” is a rather open ended catch-all term, it’s important to identify different types of magical focus, or “craft.” Below are listed a number of focal points that many witches spend years refining, learning, and applying to their craft. Some even become professional practitioners, respected and paid within their communities. In fact it’s not unheard of for a “holistic” practitioner to consider themselves a witch. This is by no means a complete list, but meant to give the reader an idea of where to start, if they themselves might want to explore their own magical path.
You may note I use the word “spellwork” or “spell” quite a lot. I will define that as “the functional formula, dedication, or process of applying magic through a type of ritual, imbued with intention with the express purpose of achieving a result,” for the sake of this article.
The first type of magical focus that comes to mind is herbal magic and plant allies. I would argue that even for those who never work to become an expert on herbs, will find themselves having a casual and workable relationship with plant allies in magic.
Working together with plants is an incredibly old concept. In some ways the root of “mystery” when it comes to witchcraft. From a scientific perspective, plants do have a relationship with our bodies, they do have their own version of communication and response to stimuli, and they are living creatures that we have a long history of interacting with. Witches have known these facts for centuries, and sometimes it can feel like science is just catching up!
The basis of herbal magic is similar to herbal medicine. Having a complex understanding of the relationship between plants, their properties, how they grow, when they are best harvested, and the best uses for them. Where it branches off from medicine is also the understanding that plants can be worked with as allies in achieving results, without actively using them within our modern understanding of “medicine.” For example, understanding a blend of herbs and their associations to intention, so one can utilize them for incense in ceremony. There is also much more focus on the relationship between practitioner and plant than we see in strict medical use. One might have a conversation with a tree before harvesting bark for a cure or a spell. This interaction is deeply important to the result itself.
Ancestor work, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of witchcraft as spirituality. However, there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to this kind of practice.
Of course, many traditions practice “ancestral veneration,” ritually honoring ancestors. This could be done through altar dedication, offerings, spells, and many other forms of veneration.
I believe that equally important is ancestral healing and unpacking ancestral debt. It is much nicer to love an ancestor we admire or an ancestor who existed hundreds of years ago outside our ability to contextualize their lived experience. It is a valid and important work. But harder and more growth-provoking is addressing those ancestors who have hurt themselves or others, who have inherited patterns of trauma that we still carry, and whose debt we now carry as well.
Ancestral work is a very complex practice and one I recommend doing within a community or with the support of a teacher.
Dream magic is another very popular type of magical expression. The basic concept is utilizing dreams to travel worlds, connect with spirits, prophesize, or gain knowledge. The concept of dream magic is simple, however the practice tends to take skill and focus.
If a witch would like to deepen their dream work practice, I recommend starting as such: keep a detailed journal of your dreams and dream life experiences. Do so for a number of months, a minimum of three. After those months, go back through the journal and create a chart of a number of recurring themes, characters, places, weather, and anything else you notice. I recommend going into as much detail as the quality of light. Now create a map of recurring places, characters, and even results you see in your waking life.
Once you begin to decode the language of your dreams, you are on the right path to masterfully working with the dreams themselves.
Verse and spoken magic is a very intriguing study that gets very little notice in pop witchcraft culture. We tend to take for granted the importance of words, meanings, and qualities of tone or vocalization. This seems a silly oversight, as oral magic is incredibly rich and steeped with power.
Deepening one’s understanding of poetry, language, and verse is a great start if they want to begin to work with language heavily in their magic. A witch can actually practice magic without any other tools whatsoever and be an incredibly talented practitioner.
My recommendation for any practitioner, regardless of your focus, is to speak every aspect of your spellwork aloud (unless you’re working with lore that expressly states otherwise.) I find the weight and reliability of spells expanded by this small enhancement of practice.
Stones and Crystals
What to say about crystals – they cannot be avoided when talking about modern witchcraft, or ancient witchcraft for that matter. We give materials meaning, and crystals and stones have complex structures that carry those meanings well.
There is a plethora of information on working with crystals. I will merely offer my small suggestions – be aware of your sources. Most of the crystal industry is based on slave labor. I personally struggle with the contradiction of healing magic coming from an object wrought with suffering. Stones from the ground that call to you carry as much meaning as a crystal, and the meaning that resonates to you is valid.
Kitchen magic! While I don’t personally identify as a kitchen witch, kitchen magic is close to my heart. What magic carries as much love, culture and self as kitchen magic? I’m sure there are many examples, but as someone with a close relationship to food culture, there is something so noble to me about the kitchen witch.
Kitchen magic is exactly what it sounds like – using cooking and baking as a means of casting spells. Kitchen magic is amazing as a practice because it also acts as such a strong metaphor for other types of spellwork. If you can cook, you can spell. If you can’t cook, you can also spell. The understanding a chef has for the process of meal creation and imaging an end result that they must work towards through tools, techniques and intentions is exactly what a witch attempts to do with any spell they try.
Animal magic is working animals into your spell to enhance intention and achieve results. In the past in some cultures this happened through animal sacrifice. However, outside of specific preserved cultural traditions, which tend to have a great number of rituals and communications with the animal before it dies, I would not promote this practice.
When I use animal magic, I work with living animals and I work with them as allies. Animal magic is an easily understood concept, because humans have an incredibly stone and deeply ingrained relationship with animals. There is really no limit to how they can be involved in spellwork.
Traditional Spellwork – Candle Magic and Material Magic
Traditional spellwork and folk magic include many of the concepts already mentioned, and do so in a more complex way. In all honesty, I only include this category to catch all the remaining material magics – many of the other topics easily fit in.
Candle magic and material magic is the concept of utilizing consecrated materials to achieve spellwork. You could use wax, candles, types of earth, water, fire, a shoe, weaving, metals. The list is as endless as your own imagination and strength of will.
Most of what we consider to be “spells” is a type of material folk magic, including jar spells, candlework, charm bags, and other traditional practices. I think all of these are great, but warrant work within a community or proper training so that one knows what it is they’re doing. I’ll get into that a little more later.
Cultural Deities, Initiatory Practices, and Closed Traditions
This is an area of great contention in the witchcraft community, so I will simply share my understanding and opinion.
Cultural deities are represented in pop culture to such a degree that they cannot truly be avoided. Many witches new to their craft are under the misconception that they must align themselves with some kind of deity to properly practice their craft. This is not true, and many witches or magic practitioners from traditions passed down to them through family or culture do not work directly with deities at all. Personally, I only work with deities when it is relevant. I find much more depth in focusing on an ancestral practice. If you choose to work with deities, avoid those from indigenous closed traditions. If you choose deities such as Norse Gods to work with, understand the cultural context before relying entirely on your own intuition.
There are also many initiatory practices when it comes to witchcraft. An initiatory practice has been passed down from practitioner to student. It requires an acknowledgment of knowledge learned before one can step into the title and role. Typically initiatory practices require an “initiation” through a teacher or spirit and cannot be done simply as a solo practice. They are also usually enmeshed in culture – for example, a healing role in a community, like the Nordic Trollkunning, tends to require study and initiation, whereas Trolldom as a more general system is one that simply requires and understanding of the surrounding culture, as Trolldom included many folk cures that housewives might have taken part in.
Finally, closed traditions, what are they? Well, a closed tradition is one so inherent to a community and practice that you are not welcome to approach and ask to be included. The community or teacher must approach you. Practicing aspects of that tradition without that acknowledgment is profane to the sacred tradition it stems from. Many indigenous cultures have closed practices, and there is an inheritance aspect to the tools and rituals. This can intersect with initiatory traditions, but they are not exactly the same. One example is smudging and the use of white sage for particular indigenous groups – there is an inherited and closed ritual attached to the practice, and it is considered offensive to try and recreate that outside of the community.
How do I become a witch?
You decide you want to be a witch. Honestly, it’s as simple as that. You start your study, you practice, and you track it.
Here are some suggestions for that process to really enhance and clarify your path:
- Keep a magical record. This is a journal of everything you do, from practice to results. It seems mundane, but it is very important. In fact, I’ve started a magical record challenge for new and old witches alike through Needfire.
- Practice, practice, practice – the only way to really witchcraft is to practice as you would with any other craft. Start small, find a focus that speaks to you, and track your results. I know I have mentioned this a number of times, but it’s vitally important. The difference between pure fantasy and magic is results. When you did a spell, did you get results that align with the intention that you placed on the ritual? If not, adjust, and try again.
- Find a teacher or support network. Truly, it will enhance your practice significantly. I offer coaching to folks who are new to witchcraft and simply want support in creating a solid foundation for their practice. I started Troll Club to create an intentional online community for practitioners. Like any craft, it is challenging to grow in a vacuum. The support of a group can make a huge difference.
- If you feel called to, look towards a tradition. Most cultures have root traditions and folk magics, and those have systems in place for navigating the world. I recommend one you have a cultural understanding of – for me, it was Nordic tradition. It is also essential to reach out to folks who are immersed in that community already. This will give you a baseline understanding if you’re not familiar with the culture from birth.
How do I know whether I’ve been cursed?
This question comes up a lot with clients. I am a professional spellworker, and I do spells for clients. It is impossible to know for sure if you’ve been cursed without some divination, but some signs: bad luck streaks, patterns of misfortune, animals dying, getting sick without any other explanation, not being able to keep a job…. Basically, if you find yourself completely surrounded by a dark cloud all the time, it is entirely possible you’ve been cursed.
However, curses aren’t as common as folks seem to think and it’s important to get verification from an outside source.
Why do people say I can’t use tools like white sage or palo santo? I see them everywhere.
This also comes up a lot – white sage and palo santo smoke cleansing tools have a long history of being used in indigenous spiritual practices and closed traditions. They did not have a history of being used or grown outside of these traditions until quite recently. And additionally, indigenous groups were actually kept from these practices. In some places they were made illegal or impossible to practice by the invading colonizers.
Over the last few decades there has been a surge in popularity among non-indigenous groups when it comes to using white sage and palo santo. Because of this popularity, they’ve become mainstream, to the point of being overharvested. The indigenous community of the Americas has asked that non-indigenous folks use other tools for smoke cleansing out of respect for the earth and their closed sacred practices. There are many other great options including tjärved – fatwood pine smoke wands, juniper, rosemary, cedar, mugwort, and lavender!
There are a lot of ways to start on a witchcraft practice. You can come from any background, religion, path or experience and practice magic. Magic is your relationship with the world in a metaphysical context, observation of results, and interaction with nature. Enjoy your experience, and keep growing!