Witch (word)

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The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse (1886)

Witch, from the Old English wiċċe (the masculine warlock, from wærloga, is of different etymology), is a term rooted in European folklore and superstition for a practitioner of witchcraft, magic or sorcery. Traditionally associated with malevolent magic, with those accused of witchcraft being the target of witch-hunts, in the modern era the term has taken on different meanings. In literature, a 'witch' can now simply refer to an alluring women capable of 'bewitching' others. In neopagan religions such as Wicca the term has meanwhile been adopted as the female term for an adherent.


The modern spelling witch with the medial 't' first appears in the 16th century. Old English had both masculine (wicca) and feminine (wicce) forms of the word,[1] but the masculine meaning became less common in Standard English, being replaced by words like "warlock" and "wizard".[citation needed]

The origins of the word are Germanic, rooted in the Old English verb wiccian, which has a cognate in Middle Low German wicken (attested from the 13th century, besides wichelen 'to bewitch').

The Brothers Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch connects the "Ingvaeonic word" *wikkōn with Gothic weihs 'sacred' (Proto-Indo European (PIE) *weik- 'to separate, to divide', probably via early Germanic practices of cleromancy such as those reported by Tacitus).[2][3][4]

R. Lühr connects wigol 'prophetic, mantic', wīglian 'to practice divination' (Middle Low German wichelen 'bewitch', wicker 'soothsayer') and suggests Proto-Germanic *wigōn, geminated (c.f. Kluge's law) to *wikkōn. The basic form would then be the feminine, wicce < *wikkæ < *wikkōn with palatalization due to the preceding i and the following < *ōn in early Ingvaeonic. The palatal -cc- /t͡ʃ/ in wicca would then be analogous to the feminine.[5]

Related terms[edit]

Another Old English word for 'witch' was hægtes or hægtesse, which became the modern English word "hag" and is linked to the word "hex". In most other Germanic languages, their word for 'witch' comes from the same root as these; for example German Hexe and Dutch heks. Its proto-Germanic form is reconstructed as *hagatusjon, whose origin is unclear.[6]

The adjective 'wicked' and noun 'wickedness' apparently derive from the Old English wiċċa ('male witch').[7]


Middle Ages[edit]

The earliest recorded use of the word "witch" is in the Laws of Ælfred, which date to about 890:[4][8][9]

In the homilies of the Old English grammarian Ælfric, dating to the late 10th century we find:

The word wicca also appears in Halitgar's earlier Latin Penitential, but only once in the phrase swa wiccan tæcaþ ('as the witches teach'), which seems to be an addition to Halitgar's original, added by an 11th-century Old English translator.[10]

In Old English glossaries the words wicce and wicca are used to gloss such Latin terms as augur,[11] hariolus, conjector, and pythonyssa, all of which mean 'diviner, soothsayer'.

Early modern period[edit]

In medieval and early modern Europe, there were people who provided services such as thwarting witchcraft, curing bewitchment, healing, divination, fortune-telling, finding lost or stolen goods, and love magic.[12][13] Alan McFarlane writes that they were sometimes specified as 'white', 'good', or 'unbinding' witches, but were more often known as cunning folk or wise folk.[14] Historian Owen Davies says the term "white witch" was rarely used before the 20th century.[15] Emma Wilby says folk magicians in Europe were viewed ambivalently by communities, and were considered as capable of harming as of healing,[16] which could lead to them being accused as being "witches" in the negative sense.[17] Éva Pócs says that half the accused witches in Hungary seem to have been healers,[18] and Kathleen Stokker says the "vast majority" of Norway's accused witches were folk healers.[19] Ronald Hutton says that healers and cunning folk "were sometimes denounced as witches, but seem to have made up a minority of the accused in any area studied".[13] Likewise, Davies says "relatively few cunning-folk were prosecuted under secular statutes for witchcraft" and were dealt with more leniently than alleged witches.[20]

Johannes Nider and other 15th century writers used the Latin term maleficus to mean witch—a person who performed maleficium, harmful acts of sorcery, against others. The introduction of the idea of demonic forces empowering the acts of maleficium gave the term witch new connotations of idolatry and apostasy that were adopted by Malleus Maleficarum (1486), but these remained disputed despite papal injunctions to take action against witches.[21]

In 17th-century Russia, societal concern about the practice of "witches" related to whether their powers could cause harm.[22] Peasants in Russian and Ukrainian societies often shunned witches, unless they felt they needed help against supernatural forces. Impotence, stomach pains, barrenness, hernias, abscesses, epileptic seizures, and convulsions were all attributed to evil (or witchcraft).[23] In Russia, three quarters of those accused of witchcraft were men.[22]

When Europeans encountered other cultures and began the process of colonization, they discovered a variety of religious and cultural expressions of magic, including shamans, witch doctors, folk healers, and medicine men which were sometimes considered by Europeans to be witches.[24] In Friuli, for instance, there was a culture of individuals with shamanistic practices known as benandanti (literally 'well-farers'), who claimed that they battled witches, but who inquisitors nevertheless determined were witches themselves.[24]


In current colloquial English witch is almost exclusively applied to women, with the male equivalent being warlock or wizard.[25]

Contemporary dictionaries currently distinguish four meanings of the noun witch, including: a person (especially a woman) credited malignant supernatural powers; a practitioner of neo-pagan tradition or religion (such as Wicca); a mean or ugly old woman: hag crone; or, a charming or alluring girl or woman.[26]

Figurative use to refer to a bewitching young girl begins in the 18th century,[27] while wiche as a contemptuous term for an old woman is attested since the 15th century. "A witch of Endor" (alluding to 1 Samuel 28:7) as a fanciful term for a medium appears in 19th-century literature.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dashu, Max (1 January 2016). "Names of the Witch". Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100.
  2. ^ Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde IV, p. 506.
  3. ^ Grimm's view is repeated by the Online Etymology Dictionary: "possible connection to Gothic weihs 'holy' and Germanic weihan 'consecrate,' s, 'the priests of a suppressed religion naturally become magicians to its successors or opponents.'"
  4. ^ a b Harper, Douglas. "witch". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  5. ^ R. Lühr, Expressivität und Lautgesetz im Germanischen, Heidelberg (1988), p. 354
  6. ^ "hag (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  7. ^ "wicked (adj.)". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  8. ^ Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2nd Edition (1989).
  9. ^ Bosworth, Joseph & T. Northcote Toller. (1998) An Anglo-Saxon dictionary, based on the manuscript collections of the late Joseph Bosworth; edited and enlarged by T. Northcote Toller. Oxford: Oxford University Press (reprint of 1898 edition). ISBN 0-19-863101-4
  10. ^ Petterson, David C. Hostile Witnesses: Rescuing the History of Witchcraft from the Writings of Scholars and Churchmen. David C. Petterson.[unreliable source?] Petterson cites Halitgar's Penitential, II.22, as in Die Altenglische Version des Halitgar'schen Bussbuches, ed. Raith, p29; quoted in North, Richard, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1997, p. 276.
  11. ^ Chardonnens, László Sándor (2007). Anglo-Saxon Prognostics, 900–1100: Study and Texts. Leiden: Brill. p. 109. ISBN 9789004158290. In another of the Plantin-Moretus glossaries, 'ariolus' is a secondary gloss to 'augur', which is glossed in Old English by 'wicca'.
  12. ^ Hutton, Ronald (2017). The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press. pp. x–xi.
  13. ^ a b Hutton, Ronald (2017). The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press. pp. 24–25.
  14. ^ Macfarlane, Alan (1999). Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study. Psychology Press. p. 130. ISBN 978-0415196123.
  15. ^ Davies, Owen (2007). Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History. A&C Black. p. xiii.
  16. ^ Wilby, Emma (2006) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. pp. 51–54.
  17. ^ Emma Wilby 2005 p. 123; See also Alan Macfarlane p. 127 who notes how "white witches" could later be accused as "black witches". Archived 2016-08-08 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Pócs 1999, p. 12.
  19. ^ Stokker, Kathleen (2007). Remedies and Rituals: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press. pp. 81–82. ISBN 978-0873517508. Supernatural healing of the sort practiced by Inger Roed and Lisbet Nypan, known as signeri, played a role in the vast majority of Norway's 263 documented witch trials. In trial after trial, accused 'witches' came forward and freely testified about their healing methods, telling about the salves they made and the bønner (prayers) they read over them to enhance their potency.
  20. ^ Davies, Owen (2007). Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History. A&C Black. p. 164.
  21. ^ Bailey, M. D. (2010). Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. (n.p.): Pennsylvania State University Press. [page needed]
  22. ^ a b Kivelson, Valerie A. (July 2003). "Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia". Comparative Studies in Society and History. 45 (3): 606–631. doi:10.1017/S0010417503000276. JSTOR 3879463. S2CID 145811691.
  23. ^ Worobec, Christine D. (1995). "Witchcraft Beliefs and Practices in Prerevolutionary Russian and Ukrainian Villages". The Russian Review. 54 (2): 165–187. doi:10.2307/130913. JSTOR 130913.
  24. ^ a b "Shamanism, Witchcraft, and Magic: Foreword." Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, vol. 1 no. 2, 2006, p. 207-208. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mrw.0.0064. "Whether they are called shamans, seers, medicine men, witch doctors, or occasionally witches, people engaged in some type of shamanistic practice have been revered and celebrated, feared, or condemned in many societies. In addition, scholars have argued that remnants or residues of shamanistic practices underlie numerous magical rites in many other societies."
  25. ^ Anita Ganeri (2010). Witches and Warlocks. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. p. 23. ISBN 9781448805068.
  26. ^ "Definition of WITCH". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 5 June 2021.
  27. ^ Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or virtue rewarded (1739–40) has: "Mrs. Jervis, said he, take the little witch from me"

Further reading[edit]