25 February 2007

Christian responses to witchcraft and Wicca

About 10 years ago I wrote an article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery, prompted mainly be the prevalence and frequency of witchhunts in what is now the Limpopo province of South Africa.

I recently found an article on Wikipedia, Christian views on witchcraft, which quoted my article at one point, and was rather confused and patchy, and would probably be confusing to most readers. One reader complained that, since many students used Wikipedia as a tertiary source, the article was frustrating, as it did not really give any references to secondary sources, and so was practically useless.

I tried to do a quick patch -- wrote a historical introduction, and tossed in a couple of bibliographical references, but such a thing really needs to be a collaborative effort, and so this is a call for discussion and help in trying to improve the article.

I'm not sure how much of the rest of the article is usable, though, and it may need to be completely rewritten.

One problem, which I touched on only briefly in my original article, is the confusion between witchcraft and Wicca. Russell (1980:12). defines "witch" as follows:
What really is a witch? One answer lies in the roots and development of words. 'Witch' derives from the Old English wicca (pronounced 'witcha' and meaning male witch) and wicce ('female witch', pronounced 'witcheh') and from the word wiccian, meaning 'to cast a spell'. Contrary to common belief among modern witches, it is not Celtic in derivation, and it has nothing to do with the Old English witan, 'to know', or any other word relating to wisdom. The explanation that witchcraft means 'craft of the wise' is false...

'Wizard', unlike 'witch', really does derive from Middle English wis, 'wise'. The word first appears about 1440, meaning a 'wise man or woman'; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it designated a high magician, and only after 1825 was it used as the equivalent of 'witch'.

Anthropologists like Evans-Pritchard have made a distinction between witchcraft and sorcery, regarding the former as an innate capacity to cause harm, sometimes even unintentionally (as in the evil eye), while sorcery is the conscious and intentional use of spells or substances. I doubt that the distinction holds good in all societies, and some use the same word for both, In Zulu a witch is umthakathi and witchcraft ubuthakathi, and the same word applies to both witchcraft and sorcery in Evans-Pritchard's sense.

As I note in my article, however, there is a modern religion called Wicca, which, though its name is derived from the old English word for "witch", is really something different. Though Wicca is a religion, witchcraft is no more a religion than carpentry is. In Africa there are religious specialists who are concerned with witchcraft, but their concern is mainly with countering its harmful effects. Early English-speaking visitors to Africa who encountered these specialists in African society described them, quite accurately, as "witchdoctors" -- that is, doctors whose job it was to heal those who had been harmed by witchcraft, and to counter the spells of witches.

"Witchdoctor" is a fairly broad term, and because of this anthropologists have tended not to like it. It is too imprecise, and fails to take into account differences in societies and cultures. Some detect witches, some detect and remove harmful substances, some provide protective medicine to counter harmful substances, and so it goes. Sometimes the job of witchdoctor is combined with that of a diviner (smelling out witches is, after all, a form of divining) but a diviner often has a much wider task. Not every misfortune or sickness is caused by witchcraft. It could be caused by an annoyed ancestor, for example. The diviner's job is to determine the cause (which may be witchcraft or something else) and recommend appropriate countermeasures.

One problem that arises, therefore, is that Christians also confuse witchcraft and Wicca, and treat them as interchangeable things. One web site where this can be seen is A Christian response to Wicca. where Wicca is identified with witrchcraft without even an attempt at definition, and both together are subsumed under "the occult" which in turn is lumped together with "humanist" and "new age" beliefs, which include just about anything, so vague is the generalising.

The primary Christian response to witchcraft is that Christians don't do such things. Killimg people is wrong, in the Christian understanding, whether you do it with knives, guns, napalm or spells. It is the intention, rather than the effectiveness of the weapon, that is the criterion.

Christian responses to Wicca are different. Wicca is a religion, and many Wiccans are ex-Christians. Where that is the case, they are apostates from Christianity, and therefore to be treated as heathens and publicans. But if we recognise this, we should study the gospels to see how Jesus treated heathens and publicans, and take note of his implicit and explicit criticism of those who treated them harshly.

These are some of the problems I see with trying to revise the Wikipedia article. Any comments or suggestions?


John W. Morehead said...

Steve, thanks for these comments on Wicca. Christians should consider how we understand, represent, and engage Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-Pagans.

I should mention the work of my colleague, Philip Johnson in Australia, who has written an article on Wicca, "Wiccans ande Christians: Some Mutual Challenges," which can be found on the Internet, and which was reprinted in Australian Wiccan Fiona Horne's book "Pop! Goes the Witch."

Look for an announcement on my blow in a couple of months on my blog for a dialogue project between Neo-Pagans and Christians that we hope will address the issues you discuss with higher standards and sensitivity

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for the comments, John.

Concerning Christian-neopagan relations, I don't know if you have read my article on Christianity, paganism and literature, which contains my views on that topic. My concern here was mainly with improving the Wikipedia article on Christian responses to witchcraft, , and at least in my view, in order to do that, Christians need to have a clear distinction between witchcraft and Wicca in mind.


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