My dictionary defines a witch as “1: one that is credited with usually malignant supernatural powers; esp: a woman practicing usu. black witchcraft often with the aid of a devil or familiar ... 2: an ugly old woman ... 3: a charming or alluring girl or woman.”
As sexist and incorrect as that definition might be, it reflects popular attitudes toward witches and witchcraft. To most Americans, witches are either child-stealing devil worshipers, hideous old women like the Wicked Witch of the West, or lovable enchantresses like the sisters in the television series “Charmed.”
But witches do exist, though they are nothing like the malevolent sorceresses of popular legend. Witches are followers of a centuries-old religion which traces its roots to the Celts and other pre-historic, matriarchal societies.
As a Goddess-worshiping, woman-centered faith, Wicca, “the craft of the wise one” (wicce) attracts many women who reject patriarchal faiths like Judaism, Christianity or Islam. “Women want to change the internal picture [they] have of a male god in heaven so that these women will no longer accept rule by males on earth,” said Naomi Goldenberg, a religious studies professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada. The craft is also popular with “changing men” and with LGBTQ people of all genders and persuasions.
There are many definitions of witchcraft. Back in my The Weekly News (a former gay South Florida newspaper) days I interviewed Will, a gay male witch who lived in South Florida. Will defined the craft as “the worship of the forces that keep the universe together - life and death.” Some witches believe in literal deities while others view them as “symbols of the forces of the universe.” Though often accused of immorality by their enemies, witches have their own code of ethics, the Witches Rede, which Will called “the single most important law” of the craft. “Do as you will so long as it harms none.”
Will described himself as a Gardnerian witch, a follower of a sect founded in the last century by Gerald Gardner out of older traditions. Witches gather in covens, groups who convene for religious or magical or psychic purposes. Covens meet weekly (esbats) or seasonally (sabbats). The greatest of eight seasonal sabbats, Samhain, falls on the eve of Nov. 1 and is the precursor to Halloween. Unlike traditional, patriarchal faiths, the craft accepts sexual and gender variance. As with other nature-centered faiths, spiritual leadership is often held by LGBT people. The Radical Faerie movement is, to an extent, a gay male product of Wicca and other neopagan traditions.
According to Will, his adherence to the craft is closely tied to his status as a gay man. Raised as a Presbyterian, Will “felt at home” the moment he encountered his adoptive faith. Will later became a third-degree priest, the highest rank within the Gardnerian sect.
Like other LGBT witches, Will integrated his religious beliefs with his sexual orientation, and found acceptance from other members of his coven and from the craft in general. Even so, Will believed that, in America, it’s easier to be queer than to be a witch. Two decades later, we still have a long way to go before the craft gains the recognition and the acceptance that it deserves, whether or not you believe in it.