~from the magnanimous Miss Bella Graham~
Witch: Who makes the statement, who receives it – and how it’s perceived by either party – makes all the difference in its associated meaning and definition.
When people outside of the pagan community hear the term "witch," they tend to assume that it's a descriptor of one, joint collective. However, in reality, “witch” is an umbrella word that encompasses a diverse set of traditions and practices that span across the world; and can be segmented by race, ethnicity and nationality.
For the purposes of this article, the terms “pagan” and “witch” will be used interchangeably; although it’s important to acknowledge that not all pagans are witches. Essentially the former refers to those who don’t believe in any of the major world religions (i.e. Christianity, Judaism or Islam), worship the earth and/or embrace polytheism (i.e. veneration of more than one god).
“Witchcraft,” however, is a form of paganism. Furthermore, some individuals (like myself) may call ourselves a “witch,” but others who share our practice may not self-identify as such.
Certain traditions and groups originate in a specific country; such as Celtic witches (which include Ireland and Scotland) – and others are rooted (and dispersed across) the African diaspora (from Africa, to South America, the Caribbean and North America). Most practitioners of African traditional religions do not call themselves witches; as there are other terms such as “priestess” or “iyanifa.”
The corresponding list is not exhaustive, but it does identify the four, largest practices.
Wicca is probably one of the most widely recognized witchcraft traditions.
Gerald Brosseau Gardner – an Englishman and occultist who was heavily inspired by Aleister Crowley (a 20th century ceremonial magician who created the philosophical system of Thelema) – is credited as being its founding father.
For the most part, Wiccans worship both a male god, The Horned God, and a female Goddess – and hold a great reverence for nature. Wiccans have a code of ethics known as the “Wiccan Rede,” which in simplest terms states: If it harm none, do what you will.” This is largely interpreted as having the freedom to exercise free will, as long as it does not harm other people.
Wiccans both believe in, and practice magic, and may do so within a coven, or solitarily.
Most Wiccan celebrations are closely aligned with the Earth, and the natural changes of the seasons; including the two solstices (June/ December), equinoxes (March/ September) and New and Full Moons. The solstices and equinoxes are included in the eight Wiccan Sabbaths, or “holy days” – with the most popular being Samhain (or the Wiccan “New Year,” also known as Halloween).
In the 1960’s, Wicca migrated to the United States; where it spanned offshoot groups, including the Dianic Wiccans (a women-only tradition) and the Neo-Pagans – each of which still exists today.
Norse witches follow the traditions of the Vikings, and may (or may not) refer to themselves as a Völva, Seidr or seeress.
These witches may trace their origins back to Northern Europe and Scandinavia (which includes the countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden). Since most of their literature didn’t survive the times, Seidrs are one of the most difficult witches to find information on. On the other hand, Norse paganism is most widely known for developing the divination practice of “rune casting.”
“Runes” are essentially divination tools that can be created from various materials – but primarily stone or wood – that contain an old Germanic alphabet known as “Elder Futhark.” There are 24 pieces. When “casting,” rather than providing exact answers for the future (which is constantly changing), runes help witches tap into their subconscious power and intuition.
In the simplest sense, Norse paganism is a kind of “shamanism” that leans on Norse mythology. It’s too complex to condense into a quick summary, but it’s probably most important to note that the deity who rules supreme is Odin – the god of war, magic and poetry.
Photo by Jennifer Marquez
Ifa is an African traditional religion (ATR), and most practitioners do not refer to themselves as witches. Some may even take offense at being included under the “pagan” umbrella – or being called a witch at all; particularly the elders.
Ifa is a closed tradition, and is primarily passed down orally through initiated “babalawos” and “iyanifas” who have received strict training in the practice. You will be able to find very little information on the Internet.
The most important thing to note about Ifa – which one could say is a “root” religion for other ATR’s such as Santería, Voodoo, Lukumi and Candomblé – is that it’s a community practice. There are no solo practitioners. Ifa initiates are accepted/trained within an “Ile,” or a house of fellow practitioners who all worship the Orisas.
The Orisas are deities who all stem from Olodumare, “the Supreme Being,” and have individual earth elements, human qualities, numbers, colors and holidays that correspond to them. Yemayá, for instance, is “the mother,” ruler of the sea and the patron saint of women, while Oya is the Orisa of the winds, lightning, death and rebirth. Oya is also a fierce warrior.
Ifa stems from West Africa, and consequently, through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was distributed across the African diaspora (North America, South America and the Caribbean) – where it eventually morphed into the traditions of Santería, Voodoo, Hoodoo, Umbanda, Vodou, Candomblé, Palo and many others. In certain instances, the Orisas were syncretized with Catholic Saints as a survival mechanism, and so the tradition could be kept intact. For instance, Oya is often worshipped as the Virgin of Candelaria.
It is for these reasons, and due to its history, that there are very few practitioners of Ifa who are not of African descent, and in some countries, initiation for those of non-African descent is not allowed. The acceptance of practitioners who are not of African descent into Ifa has been very controversial.
Hoodoo, also known as “Rootwork,” is a magical system and tradition developed by African slaves in the United States. It is not to be confused with Voodoo, which is a West African spiritual practice which originated in Haiti.
Hoodoo practitioners may or may not call themselves witches.
According to an article published by VICE, writer Yvonne Chireau states: “For its part, Conjure [i.e. Hoodoo] spoke directly to the slaves' perceptions of powerlessness and danger by providing alternative—but largely symbolic—means for addressing suffering. The Conjuring tradition allowed practitioners to defend themselves from harm, to cure their ailments, and to achieve some conceptual measure of control over personal adversity."
At its core, Hoodoo draws heavily on ancestor veneration. There isn’t a hierarchy, or a complicated system of deities or gods to follow, and most practitioners are solitary.
Hoodoo practitioners may use items ranging from herbs to bodily fluids. It is a uniquely African-American practice, and as such, should only be practiced by those of the diaspora.
As previously mentioned, these inclusions are merely snapshots into the wide pantheon of witchcraft. There’s truly no “right way” to be a witch – or to define one. Each individual witch must choose the path that is right for them by considering their interests, ancestry, and what feels the most intuitively compelling to them.
Bella Graham is a Marketing Strategist, Writer, Dark Feminine Glamorist and solo-practicing Witch. She’s spent the past several years working in Tech, Travel, Fashion and Entertainment with Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Fashion Week and Rolls Royce.
As a therapist in training (MFT), Bella combines her professional and mental health expertise to help women achieve their relationship and career goals; reclaim their divine feminine power and develop their own spiritual agency. Her platform, Muse by Midnight, will launch this Spring 2021.