As a Millennial, watching internet culture evolve and grow has been one of the more interesting and exciting aspects of our lifetime. We’re old enough that we can remember corded phones and the dial-up screeching of our AOL internet and yet young enough that we know our way around computers and smart phones. In some ways, we invented internet culture as we know it today, though some might argue that is a distinction that could and should be shared with Gen-X and perhaps Gen-Z to some extent. Most of us don’t care about who gets the credit so much as how we all benefit from it.
One notable group that has definitely grown and exploded in popularity in this technology age are those who practice witchcraft. Before we were all connected, if somebody felt called towards the practice, the leg work involved was almost intimidating. Particularly for those who wanted to practice in accordance to a pagan faith. Wiccans, for example, would have to find a coven to become initiated. However, with the availability of information at our fingertips and the presence of ever-expanding online communities, we see more solitary practitioners of all faiths and even secular witches. The greatest part is, without having to join a coven, these communities provide support and encouragement for those at varying stages of their magical and spiritual journeys. Yet, as we all know, for all the sweet there is when it comes to the internet, it certainly has its fair share of sour, and that’s exactly what was encountered in one of my communities not so long ago.
The topic of discussion was male witches. More specifically, what should we call them? In my experience, it’s come to be something of a gender neutral term. Personally, of the many men I’ve spoken with on this issue, they’ve told me flat out that they consider themselves to be witches. But recently, I’ve run into a few instances now of men being offended by the term. They consider it a feminized label and, in at least one case, aggressively argue that we should stop calling males ‘witch’ and should instead call them sorcerers, magus, or wizards. Their chief argument is in the etymology of the word, that it’s indicative of female magic users or soothsayers. It’s true that historically, witch has commonly been attributed to women more so than men.
So let’s look at the etymology. The Old English word for female witch was wicce, and while it generally referred to women as magic users or ‘sorceresses,’ the definition evolved to “woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts.” This, along with the masculine form of the word, wicca (“sorcerer, wizard, man who practices witchcraft or magic”) are derived from the verb wiccian which means ‘to practice witchcraft.’ In my view, aside from the feminine and masculine distinctions of the word, both refer to people of both genders practicing witchcraft and thus it is correct to term both ‘witches’. The Middle English word, wicche, has no such masculine or female distinctions and is a gender neutral term that referred to any person who practiced the craft. [source]
So how is it that it came to be such a feminine word? I already wrote on the topic of why witches have an uphill battle because of what it historically meant. Though it is true that men were sometimes accused of consorting with devils and using magic to bend the world and the people in it to their will, the victims of witch trials and executions were predominantly women. There was even a belief among some that witchcraft was a female-exclusive practice. In short, there came a point when the word ‘witch’ was twisted to fit a patriarchal agenda, mostly led by the Christian church at the time, to not only stamp out paganism but to punish women who did not fall in line with the societal expectations of the era.
There is no denying the history. It’s true that words over time may change meaning as well, particularly in colloquial speech. As a teacher, I often heard students refer to one another as ‘bad’ while meaning ‘good.’ They said ‘that’s lit’ rather than ‘that’s super neat-o’ and ‘I’m thirsty’ instead of ‘I’d really like to engage in intimate relations with somebody as soon as possible.’ It was frustrating as somebody who grew up on classical literature but fascinating as somebody who studied language.
So, does that mean that the man who argues ‘witch’ is not an appropriate term for a male who practices the craft is right colloquially but wrong technically? Not necessarily. Because now we get into the real hair splitting problem: In some practices, you have to earn the right to be called a wizard or a sorcerer. They imply seniority rather than gender. Is this true for all practitioners? Absolutely not. This is yet another example of how not having one set organized structure can lead to confusion and contention. What is true for a Wiccan is not necessarily true for a Pagan Witch and in turn what is true for both of them may not be true of a secular witch or Christian witch and so on.
I hate to say, once again, it all comes down to preference because that does seem to be the answer to a lot of the previous questions posed. But that’s both the complication and the beauty of being a witch. If you’re a man or a woman who practices magic, but you’d prefer not to be called a witch, that’s fine. It’s your life and your path. You direct your own sails and as the captain of your boat, you decide how you want it to float. If the guy or girl on another boat decides to do it differently, that’s their choice. So long as they’re not sinking, it isn’t really anyone’s business what’s going on anyway. That said, if you’re going to be the type of person who shouts across the water to another person that they suck for doing it their own way instead of your way, then don’t be surprised when you find nobody wants to sail in the same water you’re in.
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