Wizards, Warlocks and Witches

(c) Lucas Graciano - Gandalf the Grey 

When I say "wizard", what's the first thing that you think of? Probably Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, right? It's important to keep in mind that this is pop culture and it isn't really based on many facts. Don't get me wrong, I have read my fair share of Harry Potter books and have read almost everything by Tolkien. Nevertheless, I am aware that fantasy novels (and their big screen adaptations) aren't the best place to get "occult" and "witchy" knowledge. And that's why I decided to write this post. There is too much confusion about the terms "witch", "warlock" and "wizard". Hopefully, by the end of this post, you will know the difference, understand what these words really mean and why their depictions in pop culture are so wrong.

You might be asking yourself what this is doing on a Pagan blog. The answer is quite simple. Witchcraft is closely linked to Paganism (although not all Pagans practice witchcraft). You wouldn't believe how many people have asked me how they can become a witch/wizard or have claimed that male Pagans/Wiccans are wizards/warlocks. There's just too much confusion. So I'll try to clear things up a bit. :)


Albrecht Dürer - Witch Riding on a
Goat (cca. 1500/1501)
The stereotype of a witch as an old hag who does evil is an invention of the medieval times and a reinvention of the 20th century. If you look back in time, witches, mediums, spiritualists, oracles etc. were usually depicted (in both visual art and literature) as women, but their age was rarely, if ever specified. In ancient Greece and antiquity in general, oracles and mediums were usually young beautiful women who had to be chaste (i.e. virgins). Their purity was one of the things that enabled the gods to speak through them. Even medieval art depicts witches as pretty, young women. 

And then came the witch craze. During the "burning times" (15th-18th century), the image of the witch as an old, evil, Satan-worshiping hag developed (though some artwork and propaganda material still depicted witches as young, but no less evil) slowly giving rise to the stereotype that we have today. Just remember Shakespeare's Macbeth and his three witches ("Double, double, toil and trouble..."). These grotesque depictions of witches continued for quite some time, but became less horrific as the witch hunts died down. Though this doesn't mean that witches disappeared from literature or art. They were still present in their hag form as they are today.

In the 19th century, art was enriched by Romanticism - an artistic movement that wanted to soften the edges of the modern, industrial world. This is why all Romanticists focused on mythology and folklore (with a hint of medieval ideology). Aesthetics were of great importance to these artists so witches are always captivating in their artwork. 

Luis Ricardo Falero - The Witches'
Sabbath (1880)
George Wilson - The Spring Witch (cca. 1880)

After this, there were no more rules or conventions as to how a witch should be depicted. Some stuck to the medieval depictions, other adopted the romanticist versions and by the 20th and 21st century, the "sexy witch" also developed. So which image of the witch is correct?

The answer is - not a single one. The physical appearance of a witch has nothing to do with the meaning of the word. The term "witch" has the same roots as the word "Wicca". Both words came from the Anglo-Saxon words wicca (m.)/wicce (f.) which mean "wise one". They can also be traced back to the Old English words wit/witt (understanding, intellect, sense; knowledge, consciousness, conscience) and wittan (to know). The words wicca and wicce were later incorporated into Old English and started to refer to magicians and sorcerers (wicce referring to a female magician/sorcerer). Later on, ideas of malevolence and Satan-worship were included in the meaning of these words. The word wiccian meant "to practice witchcraft" and can be compared to the Low German terms wikken/wicken meaning "to use witchcraft". You get the picture. :) I won't bore you with etymology anymore. But the main point here is that witches as we see them nowadays are a social construct and do not have parallels in real life. Witches were originally just wise women/men who usually had special knowledge of herbs and their uses (for more details, have a look at the post "Solitaries vs. Covens"). The explicit connection between the words "witch" and "magic" and the implication of a witch being a woman (and an evil one at that) came to exist in the Middle Ages. I think our worldview has changed quite a bit since then and that we can disregard such old-fashioned assertions.

Another misinterpretation is that warlocks are male equivalents of witches. So let's sort that out too. 


The exact term we use today (ending in -ck) comes from Scottish, actually and means precisely what you think it means - the male equivalent of a witch. But this is not the true meaning of the word warlock. The meaning of this word can be traced back to the Old English waerloga meaning traitor, liar, enemy, devil. This is actually a compound word made up of two smaller words: waer (faith, fidelity, agreement, covenant) and leogan (to lie). Basically, the original meaning of the word is oath-breaker. So how does this have any connection to witches? Well, possibly as early as the 11th century, the term oath-breaker was commonly related to the devil (or a person behaving like a devil). In the 14th century, this connection was twisted and a new meaning was formed - one in league with the devil. The exact noun "warlock" along with its popular definition (male witch) wasn't accepted until the 1560s which, if you recall, was the beginning of the witch craze. Since witches were (falsely) connected to the devil back then and so was the term warlock, a "logical" connection was made and "warlock" was equated with "witch". Another interesting fact is that this new term was adopted so well that, during the witch hunts, a person that gave the inquisition the names of other witches under torture was labeled a warlock (i.e. traitor).

Obviously enough, modern witches, Wiccans and Pagans do not use the term "warlock".

(c) Andrey Shishkin - Forest King


As opposed to warlocks, wizards should call to mind much more pleasant images. The word "wizard" comes from the Late Middle English word wys/wis meaning "wise" and therefore refers to a wise man. The actual word "wizard" came into use in the 15th century and literally meant "wise man". Over time, its meaning got broader and soon enough, "wizard" also referred to alchemists, cunningmen, sorcerers, witches and so on. This is how wizards began to be thought of as male magicians or sorcerers (and sometimes even male witches). In the 16th century, wizards were also presumed to practice fortunetelling and magic (e.g. conjure up evil spirits). I'm guessing that these negative connotations suddenly appeared because of the witch craze (the 16th century is the beginning of the persecutions, after all) so anything even remotely connected to witches, who were thought of as the "initial problem", had to be evil and connected to the devil. With the Witchcraft Acts, fortunetelling, magic, spellwork, making charms and even finding lost/stolen objects became illegal because it was though of as charlatanism. To elaborate, the last of these laws was based on the theory that witches didn't exist and that anyone claiming to be one was a liar and a charlatan. In addition to this, the Church thought that divination and sorcery were works of the devil. And so all "wizards" accused of practicing harmful magic and were trialed as witches. But all through the 16th and 17th century, two types of wizards were discerned - the village wizard/magician (who did most of the above) and the high magician who was more interested in alchemy, Neoplatonic philosophy, reading grimoires and basically intellectual work. It is precisely from this figure that the modern image of the wizard (old, grey-haired, bearded, wrinkled, robed) comes from.

Most of the negative connotations of this word got lost in history, but the connection to magic and the physical description managed to survive. Still, these remnants can actually be connected to the original etymology of the word "wizard" because wisdom is generally associated with old age.


Hopefully you now understand how and why the stereotypes of witches, warlocks and wizards we have today came to exist. Like I said at the beginning of this post, pop culture is fun, but its renditions shouldn't always be blindly trusted. It's sometimes necessary to look back in time to find out what some things really mean.

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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