Although it's a little dated, the post in question is important to look at not because it says anything new, but because what it says is all too typical and pervasive. Tess Dawson's post perpetuates the insidious notion that Witchcraft is intrinsically harmful and evil, and that all positive associations with Witchcraft are modern, romantic contrivances dreamed up by feminists and/or Wiccans.
What makes Dawson's uncritical repetition of these tired old anti-Witch and anti-Wiccan talking points all the more galling is that she is herself a prominent leader of a modern polytheistic religion (Natib Qadish). That is to say, she should know better.
Here is how Dawson frames her discussion of the historical meaning of the English word "Witch" in the opening paragraphs of her post:
Later on, toward the end of her piece, Dawson claims that anyone who uses the word "witch" in any positive sense is ignoring "the centuries during which 'witch,' 'witchcraft,' or 'sorcery' were evil terms ..."
In the remainder of this post I will not be concerned with Dawson's careless conflation of the very different terms "Witchcraft" and "sorcery". Instead I will focus solely on the words "Witch" and "Witchcraft" and provide a summary of (some of) the evidence that clearly refutes Dawson's contention that "witch" is "an evil term".
First up in the witness box are the authors of The Dictionary of English Folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, who begin the entry for the word "witch" in their dictionary as follows:
"The Old English word ‘witch’ meant ‘one who casts a spell’. Intrinsically neutral, it could be applied to those using magic helpfully."In their entry for "white witch", Simpson and Roud also have this to say:
"This term ['white witch'], together with the equivalent 'good witch', or even 'witch' on its own, might be applied in Tudor and Stuart times to people who used healing spells and performed other useful services."So, according to these two noted folklorists, going back as far as Old English (a thousand years ago) and all the way up to "Tudor and Stuart times" (bringing us up to the early 18th century) the word Witch was a "neutral" term without any automatic negative (let alone "evil") connotations, and which was definitely used to refer to "those using magic helpfully", including "people who used healing spells". For more on Simpson and Roud see this previous post of mine: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud on Witches and Witchcraft.
Second, let's take a quick look at the historical records of the Scottish Witch-hunts. Half or more of all Witchcraft trials conducted in the English language took place in Scotland, so this is obviously an important source of information for the meaning of the English word "Witch". According to the research done by the folks at the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, there exist records from 873 Scottish Witchcraft trials for which we have surviving documentation that tells us what those accused of Witchcraft were actually accused of having done. (Parenthetically, this is only about 1/4 of the total surviving trial records, but only these 873 cases tell us anything about the actual, or at least purported, activities of accused Witches).
To be sure, in Scotland as elsewhere during the Burning Times, simply being accused as a Witch could mean any number of things, from practicing midwifery to being able to fly, to plotting to murder the King. What we find when we search through these trial records is that less than half of those cases in which specific information about the charges is preserved involved any reference to the use of magic to cause harm, while over 20% of these same 873 trial records explicitly refer to the performance of various kinds of beneficial magic (folk healing, midwifery, and what the researchers at the Survey simple denote as "white magic"). For more on the surviving data from the Scottish Witch-hunts see these three previous posts:
- Benevolent Magic and "The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft"
- Julian Goodare Contradicts His Own Data on Witches and Healers
- Malevolent Magic and "The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft"
- Witches As Healers in Piers Plowman (ca. 1370)
- Beneficial Witchcraft in John Trevisa's Middle English Translation of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon (1387)
- Why did the other knights suspect Sir Balin of Witchcraft? (1485)
By the time we reach the 17th century, finding literary sources documenting the association of Witches with beneficial magic becomes increasingly easy. The works of William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Robert Burton, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Henry More, Samuel Collins, John Dryden and Joseph Addison (although Addison actually brings us into the 18th century) all provide such examples. For more on these and other sources, explore the links found here: Beneficent Witchcraft: One Hundred And Seven Sources .
An especially interesting source of literary evidence from the 17th century is provided by thee different English dictionaries from the period. Robert Cawdrey's 1604 A Table Alphabetical defines "magitian" as "one vsing witchcraft". Thomas Blount's 1656 Glossographia Anglicana Nova tells us that a Witch is a woman who is capable of "Prophecying". Edward Phillips' 1658 The New World of English Words tells us that "Enchantress" and "Prophetess" are other names for a "Witch"; and that "Magick" is another word for "Witchcraft", which is defined as "the black Art whereby ... some Wonders may be wrought, which exceed the common Apprehensions of Men." In all of three of these dictionaries we find that "Witches" and "Witchcraft" are associated with magic generally, and that, as such, they are "evil" only to the extent that Christians considered all magic, outside of the "miracles" sanctioned by them, to be the works of their Devil. For more details see: Looking It Up: Witches and Witchcraft in some early English dictionaries.
Fourth, and finally, we should go back even further and flesh out what Roud and Simpson had to say about the meaning of the word "Witch" in Old English sources. If we look at the earliest known Old English laws on the subject, "wicca" (or "wicce" or "wiccecræft") usually appears as just one member of a list of proscibed magical practices, along with "wigleras", "scinlæcan"/"scincræftcan", "lybblac",and "gealdorcræftigan". In none of these lists is "wicca" singled out as especially associated with harmful or "evil" activities. Rather, these laws clearly represent sweeping efforts to eradicate surviving Pagan magical practices among people who are supposed to have been "converted". The one time when "wicca" does not appear alongside other terms for practitioners of magic, it appears, instead, in an explicitly religious context in a law (Cnut 1018) intended to root out "hæðenscip". In addition to these laws, we also have other surviving Old English sources documenting the fact that Witches were sought out by those seeking healing, financial success, and longevity. For more details and sources see: